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Samsung unit unveils AI-powered digital avatar

Las Vegas

A SAMSUNG lab on Tuesday unveiled a digital avatar it described as an AI-powered "artificial human," claiming it is able to "converse and sympathise" like real people.

The announcement at the opening of the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas touted a new kind of artificial intelligence called NEON, produced by the independent Samsung unit Star Labs.

The technology allows for the creation of customised digital beings that can appear on displays or video games and could be designed to be "TV anchors, spokespeople, or movie actors" or even "companions and friends", according to the California-based unit of the South Korean giant.

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"NEONs will be our friends, collaborators and companions, continually learning, evolving and forming memories from their interactions," said Pranav Mistry, chief executive of the lab.

The NEON creators said the new virtual humans are the product of advances in technologies including neural networks and computational reality. According to Star Labs, the avatars "create life-like reality that is beyond normal perception to distinguish, with latency of less than a few milliseconds".

While digital avatars have long been able to be programmed for specific tasks such as role players in games, NEON goes further by enabling interactions that can incorporate human emotion.

Although the artificial humans may borrow features from real people, "each NEON has his or her own unique personality and can show new expressions, movements, and dialogues", the company said.

The announcement comes amid a proliferation of AI-manipulated computer videos known as "deepfakes," and growing concerns about how they could be used to deceive or manipulate. Some analysts fear these fakes could be misused during an election campaign to exacerbate political tensions.

Jack Gold, analyst at J Gold Associates, said Samsung may be ahead of the pack if it can develop avatars that can show emotions and expressions.

"We have to wait and see what this means," Mr Gold said. "But it has major implications for many fields like customer service, help desk functions, entertainment, and of course could also be used to 'fake' a human interacting with a live person for bad or illegal purposes."

Avi Greengart of the consultancy Techsponential said the avatars could be realistic but also "creepy". "Leaving aside how impressive the technology is, will NEON be used in ways that people like, just tolerate, or actively hate?" he said. AFP