WE humans are disappointing. We’re late for work. We smell a little. We’ve got issues, and then we’ve got excuses.
Not so, the avatar, that high-tech substitute for a human being. More and more, we find fakes of various kinds replacing the all-too-real. From airport holographs offering travel advice to vivacious docents at Boston’s Museum of Science, avatars are showing up and filling in.
There’s even a virtual border guard at a U.S.-Mexico crossing in Nogales, Arizona. Developed by the University of Arizona and the U.S. government, this Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time (AVATAR) appears on-screen, conducting interviews like a proper guard. He’s supposedly just as capable as his peers of detecting pupil dilation, shifts in the eyes’ focus, facial changes, and alterations in vocal patterns. If AVATAR doesn’t like your attitude, you’ll move on to a flesh-and-blood interrogator who’s worse.
After that experience, perhaps you’ll need the online “animated psychologist avatar” currently being developed at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. SimSensei uses Kinect, Microsoft’s motion recognition technology, to interpret body language and facial expressions and detect depression. It’s hard to think of anything sadder than a person seeking understanding from an avatar, so chances are the diagnosis is always going to be darkish.
On the other hand, maybe nattering to a stranger who’s the personification of disinterest would be good for one’s mental health. I couldn’t get any free advice from SimSensei , so I was excited to find a “virtual therapist” at Healthy Minds, an online website sponsored by BBC Northern Ireland.
“Hello, I am George,” wrote a static avatar, whose picture showed him dressed in a green sweater and white shirt with no facial features except a bald head, glasses, and a moustache/goatee.
The disclaimer above George noted that he was for entertainment use only, which sounded promising. I’ve always found eyeless, noseless and lipless men attractive, though the earlessness did worry me in a counsellor.
Our discourse occurred precisely as follows.
“Hi, George. I’m Canadian,” I typed.
“Did you come to me because you are Canadian?” wrote George, presumably in a charming accent since this was an Irish website.
“Yes, I did,” I said. “I want to know what I can do about it.”
“Suppose you got to know what you can do about it?” George asked, sounding, in my imagination, like Chris O’Dowd, the Irish actor who played the adorable cop in the movie Bridesmaids.
“Here are my concerns. When I’m drunk, I would like to be seen as drunken and poetic, like James Joyce, and not as just another hoser,” I confided. That was the only worry I could come up with off-the-cuff.
“Do you enjoy being drunk, you would like to be seen as drunken and poetic, like James Joyce, and not just as another hoser?” said George, which didn’t really make sense. Perhaps he was full of virtual Irish whiskey himself. As counselling went, I was obviously scraping the bottom of the barrel.
“George, are you just going to repeat whatever I say as a
question?” I enquired.
“Why are you interested in whether or not I am just going to repeat whatever you say as a question?” George replied. This was starting to sound like CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s interview with prickly musical genius Van Morrison.
“George, are you an idiot?” I asked.
“Oh … an idiot?” said George.
“Yes,” I wrote forcefully.
Evidently George was just as obtuse as my friend Anna the IKEA avatar, with whom I’d had an unrewarding online exchange back in 2011.
I wondered if a bit of matchmaking might be in order. I called up the IKEA website and instantly found the perky, animated brunette with all her facial features intact. (Again, this is the exact conversation we shared.)
“Hi, Anna. I was wondering whether you know George, of Healthy Minds,” I began.
“Good. We’re reading from ‘the same page’ then as they say,” Anna replied. Maybe she did know him, or maybe she was just Swedish.
“Anna, what do you think of George?” I asked. “He is posing as a therapist but he seems to have no advice to give me.”
“Sorry,” wrote Anna. “As an IKEA Online Assistant I don’t know the meaning of ‘no.’”
Was this her version of a come-hither to George? I didn’t really want to picture faceless George and smiley Anna making mad love in a digital motel, but I couldn’t help it.
I found myself feeling a little jealous. “Anna, why do you blink so much?” I asked nastily. “Do you have drug problems?”
“The name IKEA was formed from the founder’s initials (Ingvar Kamprad) plus the first letters of Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd, the farm and village where he grew up,” Anna droned.
I decided then that I’d had enough of them both. Maybe, after meeting Anna, George would finally make the wise move and get some counselling himself.