Digital humans vs human interaction

Human – computer interaction studies the design and use of computers by users. This is an interdisciplinary subject where the main goal is to make technology easy to use. Nowadays, through the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, one possibility opens to designers: the replication of human to human interaction to use digital systems.

The idea of create a system that is capable of replicate a human has been largely reported on entertainment. The first automaton in literature that can be called a robot dates from 1868 and was described by Edward S. Ellis in The Steam Man of the Prairies. Although probably is at movies where we can see a trend of robots and androids getting almost human:
– HAL 9000 in 2001: a space odyssey.
– Data in Star Trek: The next generation.
– C-3PO in the Star Wars saga.
– Ash in the original Alien, David in Prometeus and David and Walter in Alien: Covenant.
– All replicants in Blade Runner.
– All the hosts in Westworld.

As usually happens with science fiction, what somebody imagined before, somebody will try to replicate when technology may allows it. For digital humans, examples are this TED talk, and there is a nice story in medium, here.

But wait a minute: what is a digital human?
Instead of being a machine build by hardware and complex electronics as in previous examples, a digital human is a digital representation of a virtual 3D body that focuses in a bringing all the anatomical characteristics of humans. All to make the representation of a human being is as close as possible as a real one. And as you can see in the links before, there is no doubt that the technology is impressive. At the current state, it is already very useful in movies and video games for example.

This achievements may lead to the conclusion that we are close to have digital humans that are able to communicate with regular humans at the same level that human beings interact between each other. I would not only say that this is not true, but that we are probably farther away of this than many people believe.

My skepticism comes from the nature of the problem. Even human beings have problems to understand themselves when they communicate between each other. Why is there the thought that a machine will be able to do it better? There are simply too many unknowns. And humans had a huge amount of years of evolution to tune their brains. This may not be a huge problem for some particular and well defined cases, but for wide and diverse conversations, a system that i available to solve this problem is unlikely to happen soon.

So for the short term, the replacement of humans by digital counterparts seems quite unlikely. In a situation of direct conversation, a human will quickly notice that something is off. And if it is not clear that you are not talking with an actual human, the user may feel mislead. And even if the user does believe that the interaction is with a human being, the feeling of uneasiness will not let the user comfortable.

On the other hand, when the user knows that the interaction only tries to replicate human interaction, the user will be probably more forgiving to unexpected actions from the system. In fact, this actions maybe need to be present always, so the user is reminded that the interaction is with a digital system. It is been studied that some people feel better talking to a machine because it is impossible for the machine to judge them, so the feel liberated to express themselves. However, that then leads to the next question: is then the resemblances to a human interaction necessary?

Finally, I think that this may give birth to a situation where customer service will be divided in several tiers. Low paid tiers will be probably text bots while digital humans can be relocated to medium paid tiers, and an actual human for high paid tiers. This is not really too far-fetched, there are multiple companies that will suggest looking for answers in forums (free) for individuals and high end customer service for companies (high paying).

Could that be the beginning of human help to be seeing as a luxury item? I am quite sure this has already begun.

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