What if you had a twin that knew everything you knew? What if you could send that twin out and trust that it will do exactly what you would do? What if you could use it to try on new clothes for you, go on dates halfway around the world—even help you live forever?
That’s what artificial intelligence company ObEN aims to do—and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
More and more companies are taking artificial intelligence (AI) seriously and seeing its potential to disrupt the world. McKinsey & Company reported that, in 2016, companies spent between $26-39 billion on AI research, development and acquisitions, with tech giants such as Google and Baidu making up the bulk of the spending. Earlier this year, ObEN, which creates personal AI assistants, raised $5 million from China-based tech company Tencent to develop AI celebrities for use in augmented reality platforms, where users can directly interact with celebrity avatars.
“Two years ago when I talked about [ObEN’s] platform, I told people that every phone will become AR-ready, but they didn’t believe it,” shares Adam Zheng, cofounder and chief operating officer of ObEN, an East West Bank client. “Right now…all the major smartphones in the world will become AR-ready next year.”
At first glance, having an AI assistant who looks exactly like you seems more like a fun niche product than something that could revolutionize the way people behave. However, Zheng and ObEN have big plans to disrupt the social experience and change the future of tech.
“The old way of interaction is all messaging or video calling,” says Zheng. “I think new technology makes people more isolated, but people have a true fundamental need of being connected. Eventually, technology and human need will converge into a new face.” And ObEN plans on being that face.
With the creation of virtual avatars that look and sound just like you (“digital twins,” as Zheng calls them), ObEN hopes to make people’s lives more efficient by essentially allowing them to do two things at once. In order to host these twins, ObEN plans to build its own AR-based mobile app, so that people can bring their personal AIs everywhere, use them to “teleport” to different countries, and interact with other AIs in the real world, à la Pokémon Go. “Even [if] people are busy, their digital twin can do lots of things for them to make their lives more efficient,” he says. And since these digital twins don’t exist in a world encumbered with normal physical constraints, these avatars open up “lots of opportunities to engage more people in any kind of culture or location.”
"The human body may pass away, but the brain will not. It’s like a time machine for everyone. "
Companies with intellectual property can also use ObEN’s technology to create completely new—and completely virtual—celebrities from scratch. It can be a humanlike avatar, or a virtual 3D recreation of a popular comic book character that fans can interact with, one that has its own personality, background history, and can hold a conversation with users, says Zheng.
The digital twins, along with helping you date and fan-girl over your favorite celebrity, can even let you live forever. ObEN’s AI is capable of storing all data and information from your entire life, and, once you have this twin, you can use it to dial back to any moment in your life, and even use that information to generate entirely new content and interactions. “In the longer term, the more we work on this, we realize that people’s minds can actually live forever and still interact with people using augmented reality—and can still evolve,” shares Zheng. “The human body may pass away, but the brain will not. It’s like a time machine for everyone.”
ObEN’s most ambitious plan is to create a decentralized data network—which is also the crux on which the company rests. Whenever people use the internet or a mobile app, they leave behind data, but it’s controlled (“centralized”) by each individual platform. In order for ObEN to create its AI avatars, they need to aggregate each user’s individual data, across all platforms, and convert it into the avatar—they just need to get people to contribute that data.
“AI needs a lot of data—but why would anyone contribute data?” asks Zheng. The answer: blockchain technology.
“We are deploying our AI technology on blockchain because blockchain is a decentralized ledger that allows people to verify if the ID is true, if the transaction is true—and it’s also immutable,” he explains. Zheng believes that blockchain is “the next sharing economy” that will connect and make available even more data. “Because of blockchain, we can have an incentive system to allow people to share their data, computer resources, and their spare storage to the entire community,” he says. “At the same time, their identity and data is protected, and they can be compensated with virtual currency.”
Zheng adds, “If everyone had this kind of personal AI, we can restructure the entire economy by building applications on top of everyone’s AI.”
Many sources say that China will soon beat the U.S. in the artificial intelligence race, and the Chinese government has made plans to become a world leader in the industry by 2030. China’s big three tech companies, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (collectively known as “BAT”), have all established AI labs to push forward their own initiatives. Considering that China and other East Asian countries also implement and adopt new technologies, such as facial recognition, at a much faster rate, the region seems ready to rapidly embrace artificial intelligence.
“The best technology and the most innovative business models are still created in the U.S.,” Zheng concedes. “But adoption in Asia is dramatic. For example, lots of Chinese people don’t have cable TV; they totally rely on mobile phones, everywhere they go. Because they don’t have legacy (mature technology), they can completely see the benefit of new technology.”
There is also more legal red tape in the U.S. than in Asia. For instance, developing celebrity AIs is much more complex in the U.S. because each star’s “rights [are] split between many different kinds of agencies,” according to Zheng. Even though he says that these celebrities want to create their own digital twins, ObEN is entering uncharted territory with no legal precedent. “Digital copyright is usually a replica of the photo, video, MP3,” he explains. “In our case, it’s not a replica. It’s a learning of that data that then creates a new model for that person, and that model can generate new content. It’s a completely new space.” However, in Asian countries like South Korea, the process is much simpler because entertainment agencies like SM Entertainment, which ObEN is working with, own the complete rights to all their stars.
However, that doesn’t mean that ObEN isn’t interested in the U.S. or that American investors aren’t interested in them; one of their angel investors was Allen DeBevoise, the CEO of Machinima, which is one of the largest YouTube gaming networks. It’s just a matter of targeting the right demographic.
“We focus more on teenagers,” shares Zheng, when talking about their U.S. strategy. “They like new ideas and new technology—and they grew up on mobile.”
ObEN selects investors very carefully. They make it a point to choose investors who have a clear understanding of the future of artificial intelligence, long-term vision, and the resources to carry them there.
When ObEN sought investment from South Korea’s SoftBank Ventures, Zheng emphasizes that they weren’t driven purely by SoftBank’s coffers. The SoftBank Next Media Innovation Fund, which funded ObEN, was jointly created with Naver, a South Korean web company that also owns popular apps like Line, the largest social messenger in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan; Snow (which is similar to Snapchat); and Webtoon, the largest online comic book platform in Asia.
“These kinds of resources actually help us a lot,” says Zheng. “Right now, we’re working with Naver to turn their comic character into a 3D artificial intelligence avatar…we’re also talking with Snow to try to do some integration, as well.” With Tencent, their most recent funder, ObEN is working on developing a personalized AI version of Apple’s Siri, but also hopes to utilize Tencent’s connections to celebrity agencies to further their development of celebrity artificial intelligence.
In order to attract investors (Asian or not), Zheng recommends understanding exactly how your company will contribute to humankind—the biggest of the big pictures. “When I first started my company, I met with one cofounder of Twitter,” he shares. “He wanted me to think deeper and come up with [an answer] that I could easily explain in a way that investors could appreciate. That way they can put in money—not just for a financial return—but so they could do something good.”