Innovation

Why you'll send a digital avatar to a meeting by 2020

Screenshot from Soul Machines video (Soul Machines).

Screenshot from Soul Machines video (Soul Machines).

In the future, you might not have to attend a meeting in person.

Instead, you’ll send an avatar who knows what you’d normally say, your opinions on important topics, and even finalize plans on a project. The “bot” might appear on a screen or as a robot that can look at the person speaking, walk up to the whiteboard, and make gestures.

And, here’s the good news. For anyone who has used the old joke about cloning yourself so you can become more productive, the avatar could handle multiple meetings, all at the same time. This will free you up to do the actual work that comes out of the meeting. You could dispatch an avatar to meet with a sales team in New York and in Omaha at the same time.

CHECK OUT THIS PERSONAL CARGO ROBOT FROM THE MAKER OF VESPA SCOOTERS

This is not a far-fetched idea or something from a science-fiction movie. In fact, it’s possible you’ll send an avatar to your meetings by the year 2020 -- or even sooner.

Today, a telepresence robot can already fill in for you in a meeting. The downside is that the bot has no intelligence of its own; it’s more like a live video feed on wheels (that is, you still have to be the talking head). Some companies provide a virtual receptionist that can greet you and direct you to a meeting location. An avatar would be more like the virtual human that appears on the UK version of Match.com or a virtual resume that can share your work history.

A few companies are building the next step: an avatar that fills in for you.

BY SQUEEZING AND TWISTING, NEW ROBOT COULD KEEP HEARTS PUMPING

One is called Soul Machines. In a demo, an avatar can respond to questions or share opinions. The company is building the bot to use the bone structure and muscle movements of a real person. This avatar could mimic your word choices, your tacit knowledge, and even your facial expressions. It would work like an FAQ on a website initially, providing stock answers.

“I imagine this avatar will be authorized to answer questions and give positions, and defer to you if the response requires consideration,” Soul Machines CEO Mark Sagar told Fox News.

What comes next? An avatar from Soul Machines could carry on a conversation with other humans or with a group of avatars in a real (or virtual) meeting location. The goal would be exactly the same as it is now in meetings -- to reach a consensus, to elaborate on a topic, to make plans that become action points. When all of the avatars reach a resolution, the meeting would end.

REAL-DEAL ROBOCOP SPOTTED PATROLLING STREETS OF NYC

Another company called Oben is building a 3D virtual reality avatar. You’d use one to communicate for you in a virtual setting. The avatar uses Natural Language Processing (or NLU) to listen to conversations, process what everyone is saying, and respond. A bot like this could be trained to give the right response in a meeting according to a vast database of your viewpoints.

Of course, you might wonder if a meeting avatar will really work. Soul Machines’ Sagar explained that there will be a testing period and some glitches at first. If the bot gets confused, it could tap into a live feed for you to respond in real-time. Using machine learning, the bot could adapt to conversations. The bot would at least know the basics -- where you are traveling, which projects you have in your queue, what you’ve said on social media recently.

A meeting avatar could become so valuable that it could even put an end to meetings, although that will take even more work. It is far easier to share a few opinions about a project, but much harder to mimic the human brain and our ability to resolve conflict or theorize.