This story is from the 2018 Access FYI: FedEx Young Innovators List. Explore more from this issue
Virtual companions and artificial intelligence

The Future of Friendship?

Virtual companions are coming, and they want to know what you’re doing Friday night.

May 2018

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Virtual companions and artificial intelligence

Voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa get all the shine for running our thermostats and toilets, but a different kind of artificial intelligence is on the horizon: the virtual companion. Imagine a digital friend who could provide casual conversation, advice or even something resembling love.

At the 2018 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, wireless carrier SK Telecom debuted HoloBox, a cylindrical device containing a projected 3D character named Wendy, modeled after a real-life K-pop star. Wendy performs Alexa-like tasks such as turning on lights and music, but her developers see a future in which she’s able to engage in friendly dialogue and mimic emotional responses.

Other examples of this emerging tech range from the extreme (a holographic wife named “Azuma Hikari,” now on sale in Japan for $2,700) to the inevitable (in 2017, Apple reportedly posted a job listing for engineers with psychology and counseling degrees to help make Siri more than just an assistant).

Though virtual companions are meant to cure loneliness, a 2017 study by marketing researchers at the University of Michigan found that humanized products ultimately make users feel lonelier and less connected to their fellow humans. No word yet on what Siri thinks about that.

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