AVATARS PROVIDE THE PERSONNEL TOUCH

AT&T introduces BE ME 'conscious software' and says goodbye to its HR department

If you are an employee of AT&T and ring the HR department tomorrow morning, you will be not be talking to a human being. You could be talking to Millie, Sam or Susan: they might look like a person on your videophone or your PC screen, but they are virtual beings. These are the most highly developed avatars on the planet – they think, they feel, they will sense your state of mind. They almost breathe.

Today AT&T, one of the world’s biggest corporations, launches one of its most ambitious projects ever, as it disbands its 250-strong per-sonnel division in favor of cyberspace. In future, avatars will deal with most of the HR issues, including recruitment and interviews. Only AT&T’s Vice President Human Resources and a team of 15 people, all senior executives, remain. This is just the beginning of a whole new trend in business.


ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

The word ‘avatar’ comes from Sanskrit, meaning ‘Earthly incarnation of a Hindu deity in human or animal form’ – especially one of the incarnations of Vishnu, such as Rama and Krishna. It is the embodiment of something, or someone who embodies, personifies, or is the manifestation of an idea or concept.

In computing, ‘avatar’ is used to describe the image of a person in virtual reality. It is a moveable, three-dimensional image that can be used to represent somebody in cyberspace – for example, an Internet user. If you remember the movie, ‘The Net’, Sandra Bullock talked to avatars in the chat rooms.

The subject of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has always fascinated. In 1816, the English author Mary Shelley’s novel, ‘Frankenstein’, was published to resounding public success. The monster created by a mad scientist, which gains human emotion, was later immortalized by Boris Karloff in the 1931 film.

Latterly there was Arthur C Clarke’s short story, ‘The Sentinel’, which depicts HAL the megalomaniac computer; Stanley Kubrick turned this into his cinema masterpiece, ‘2001’. Clarke followed this with his 2003 bestseller, ‘3001: The Final Odyssey’.

There was Rutger Hauer’s haunting portrayal of an android in ‘Bladerunner’, the film based on Philip K Dick’s novel, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’; ‘Westworld’ and Steven Spielberg’s film, ‘AI’ – not to mention the hugely popular ‘Terminator’ films.

Timeline

1941: Artificial Machinery

Traditional Artificial Intelligence grows out of efforts to crack enemy codes in the Second World War. The concept of ‘Artificial Machinery’ is mooted by Alan Turing, the mathematician and computer scientist who breaks the Enigma code at Bletchley Park, Britain’s Defense Code & Cipher Department.

1960s: Fuzzy logic

The science of AI takes a big leap forward when computer scientist, Professor Lotfi Zadeh, proposes his theory of ‘fuzzy logic’. This breaks from the Classical tradition of logic, by attempting to mirror the imprecision in the real world. Fuzzy logic provides a model for human reasoning, in which everything is a matter of degree. It forms the basis of the discipline ‘soft computing’, which enables programmers to develop code to mirror human speech and facial movement.

1997: Clarke Test

Arthur C Clarke’s ‘Clarke Test’ for computer consciousness is if it showed a genuine sense of humor – to make jokes at its own expense.

2003: Conscious software

‘Conscious’ software – machinery that can think – takes a leap forward, when Stan Franklin, a computer scientist at the University of Memphis, Tennessee, announces his ‘Intelligent Distributed Agents’ (IDA) program. This computer system is designed to help the US Navy automate the work of some of its personnel. IDA can decide how and where to billet service personnel when they came off a tour of duty – work that requires judgment, understanding and emotion.

Igor Aleksander argues in the New Scientist that our brains contain a persistent representation of the outside world, which is encoded in the electrochemical impulses. Once computers can mimic five mechanisms – sense of place, imagination, directed attention, planning and emotion – they would become ‘conscious’.

The sense of reality of avatars increases as the interface in the technology between man and machine improves. Nvidia’s new Geoforce graphics card provides a much higher level of reality in the drawing of avatars. Where the computer game character, Lara Croft’s features were less detailed, the facial expressions of Nvidia’s ‘Dawn Fairy’ are highly realized.

Raymond Kurzweil, one of America’s foremost computer scientists and thinkers on Artificial Intelligence, writes that he believes machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence within a few decades. His female avatar, Ramona – Kurzweil’s alter ego – is one of the most highly developed in the world.

Then comes the movie, ‘Simone’, the story of a Hollywood actress created by a down-at- heel director, who gains immediate celebrity status without anyone realizing she is an avatar. This takes the concept of the avatar to a new level – what is surprising is how unsurprising the idea of the avatar has become.

2005: Avatars feel real

Avatars begin to feel real as well as look real. It is when highly sophisticated computer graphics based on fuzzy logic, begin to interface with ‘conscious software’, that the real advances are made.

2007: Avatars widely used in entertainment>

Whilst avatars are now widely used in computer games, movies and television shows, most companies use only a few in the area of customer-facing tasks.

Arthur C Clarke’s story, “3001: The Final Odyssey’ is released at cinemas worldwide. Relative to the picture this paints of the Future, ‘conscious software’ feels like an everyday matter.

2010: BE ME software

BE ME software – a complete integration of avatars with ‘conscious software’, is launched for human resources departments and recruitment agencies. Millie, Sam and Susan make jokes as well as decisions, sympathize and tell you to get the hell out.

Employee issues are the most human aspect of a company. The decisions made in the HR department require a good deal of knowledge, judgment, understanding and emotion. Whilst for years, organizations have relied on computers that can do the thinking, they have never before had access to machines that provide intuition and the softer skills in decision-making.

This is just the start. If BE ME can choose the best recruits for the best positions, keep employees developed and happy, understand their needs and intuit their next moves, how long has general management got?

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

Despite appearances to the contrary, Futureworld cannot and does not predict the future. Our Mindbullets scenarios are fictitious and designed purely to explore possible futures, challenge and stimulate strategic thinking. Use these at your own risk. Any reference to actual people, entities or events is entirely allegorical. Copyright Futureworld International Limited. Reproduction or distribution permitted only with recognition of Copyright and the inclusion of this disclaimer.