New World Same Humans #41

Kim Kardashian, virtual humans, and how weird becomes mainstream.

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This week, an essay on a powerful emerging trend and its path from weird to mainstream. I think this trend is set to reshape media and reconfigure business in the years to come. It might even change your life.

This one is long so remember that, as ever, you can listen to it as a podcast. Treat the Fast Download as the default read, and head to the full essay for further details.

Enough preamble. Dive in!


📥 Fast Download: Virtual Humans, and How Weird Becomes Mainstream

👀 You saw the holo-Kardashian. Now take a second look. Kanye West gave Kim Kardashian a hologram of her late father for her 40th birthday. Sounds weird? Tomorrow’s mainstream often starts life as today’s weird or ridiculous. In fact, the holo-Kardashian taps into a powerful emerging trend. That is, the rise of virtual humans: anthropomorphic digital beings that look and sound – and are intended to be received as – something akin to real people.

💰 Virtual influencers are already big business. Lil Miquela is a virtual influencer (VI) with 2.8 million Instagram followers. She’ll reportedly earn around $11 million for her creators, the LA-based agency Brud, this year. Superplastic, the agency behind popular VIs Janky and Guggimon, raised $10 million in seed funding in 2019.

📺 The rise of virtual influencers is fuelled by deep shifts in the nature of media and brands. Legacy, one-to-many media gave us the iconic, Big Story brands of 20th-century consumerism: McDonald’s, Nike, Chanel. Today’s media gives us fractured, personalised, interactive brands. VIs are near-perfect vehicles with which to navigate this terrain. They can mix it on Instagram and Twitter. They can be everywhere at once, telling a million different personalised stories. They can enter Fortnite and play alongside those they wish to persuade.

🧞 Now the virtual companions are coming. Another powerful shift is influencing the evolution of virtual humans. Our relationship with AI-fuelled assistants is starting to encompass higher-order human needs such as creativity, and even companionship. The AI-fuelled chatbot app Replika, which bills itself as ‘your AI friend’, was downloaded half a million times in April. Now, virtual humans will merge with these AI entities to create a new breed of virtual companions. It’s easy to laugh at the idea of being friends with an AI. But the human need for companionship is deep. When a technology unlocks new ways to serve deep human needs, the pull towards new behaviours tends to overcome our collective resistance to the weird.

👾 The end game is a metaverse full of virtual companions. I’ve written a lot about the emergence of simulated worlds as domains of meaningful human experience. Soon, sophisticated virtual companions will enter those worlds, too. Think Replika is weird? Get ready. In the meantime, the bridge to widespread acceptance of virtual companions could be an AI that radically extends the smartphone’s project to empower us. Imagine a guide to living in the complex, accelerated tribe that is modern humanity; a Socrates, Freud, and Dave-from-next-door, always in your pocket. It’s not hard to imagine a world where millions feel that they are in a deep relationship with the clarifying mirror that is their AI companion. And once we’re there, virtual companions will have secured their hold on us.


👀 You saw the holo-Kardashian. Now take a second look.

As you know, the most famous woman in the world celebrated her 40th birthday this week. Kim Kardashian chartered a private jet to take 30 friends and family to Tahiti, where she swam with whales, watched a movie on the beach, and ‘pretended things were normal for a while.’

The masses – that’s me and you – were meant to scroll, and scroll we did. Amid a million #soblessed updates, though, there’s no doubt which generated the most attention. Kim’s husband – as you also know – is the rapper Kayne West, and his present to his wife was a hologram. A hologram, specifically, of her late father Robert Kardashian, who died aged 59 in 2003.

In an appearance lasting just over two minutes, the holo-Robert reminisced about driving Kim to school, commended her career, and told her he loved her.

So that’s new.

It’s easy, when presented with something so unfamiliar, to laugh. To dismiss it as ridiculous. Or, in this case, as the indulgence of people so rich as to be a divorced from reality; a little weird.

For those of us obsessed with our shared future, though, those feelings should be a signal to look closer. That’s because tomorrow’s mainstream often starts life as today’s weird or ridiculous. Take online dating. Just two decades ago it was a practise steeped in social shame: the last hope of the desperate or unhinged. Today, matches on Tinder lead to an estimated 1 million dates per week. None of those people think they met online; they just met.

When it comes to the holo-Kardashian, there are clear reasons to take a second look. First, where the rich and famous lead – even if the path is a little strange – the rest of us tend to follow. But here, the reasons go far deeper. The Kardashian hologram taps into a powerful emerging trend, driven by new technologies, a changing media landscape, and eternal, underlying aspects of our nature.

That trend is the rise of virtual humans: anthropomorphic digital beings that look and sound – and are intended to be received as – something akin to real people. In its own way, the holo-Kardashian is yet another signal that these virtual apparitions are moving into the mainstream. And a reminder of their power to connect with us on a deep emotional level.

Virtual humans will sweep their way through our culture in the coming years. They’ll rewrite many of the rules of business and media as they go. And in their most powerful incarnation, they may even change your life.


💰 Virtual influencers are already big business

One kind of virtual human has already become big business across the last few years. I mean the virtual influencer (VI).

The best known among them is Lil Miquela. A teenage model supposedly from California, Miquela has 2.8 million Instagram followers. She’s appeared in campaigns for Calvin Klein, Prada and the Coachella music festival. UK-based analysts On-Buy reckon she’ll earn around $11 million for her creators, the LA-based agency Brud, this year.

Now, a host of similar creations are stepping forward: around 125 active VIs are now in play according to Virtual Humans, the online magazine that tracks the space. Superplastic, the agency behind popular VIs Janky and Guggimon – styled as a stuntman cat and a weird bunny-creature respectively – raised $10 million in seed funding last year.

Business Insider estimates brands will spend $15 billion on influencer marketing in 2022. It’s clear VIs will take a significant slice.


📺 The rise of virtual influencers is fuelled by deep shifts in the nature of media and brands

So what’s going on?

For both creators and clients, the superficial attraction of VIs is clear. They don’t want a share of their earnings. They don’t get tired, or let fame go to their heads. And, best of all in 2020, they don’t get ill. The pandemic has accelerated the trend for virtual humans of all kinds; more on this later.

But look closer and far greater forces are at work. The rise of the VI taps into deep underlying shifts in the nature of media, which in turn explode one of the central models we’ve used to understand business across the last several decades: the brand.

That shift, in short, is this. Legacy, one-to-many media manufactured a few Big Stories that everyone paid attention to. When it came to businesses, those stories were brands: the iconic global brands of 20th-century consumerism – think Coca-Cola, Nike, Chanel – were created by a relatively small number of TV, radio and print adverts consumed by audiences of hundreds of millions.

Digital media is different. It has fractured into a million and more personalised channels. It is many-to-many. It is not passively consumed, but interactive, or immersive. It is Instagram, Reddit, WeChat, and Fortnite. In that landscape, the legacy, one-to-many, Big Story brand doesn’t work the way it used to. Businesses have had to adjust.

The VI, it’s becoming clear, is a near-perfect vehicle with which to navigate this terrain. Rather than telling one big story on television, VIs can mix it with their audience on Instagram and Twitter. They can be everywhere at once, telling a million different stories at once, depending on who is listening. They can enter Fortnite and literally play alongside those they wish to persuade.

Legacy one-to-many media gave us legacy, one-to-many brands. Today’s media gives us fractured, personalised, interactive brands. And their face to the world? Increasingly, they’ll be VIs.

You see the ability of VIs to deal with the new media landscape when you look at, say, Xin Xiaomeng, the virtual newsreader developed by Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency. Unlike a human newsreader, Xin can read the news millions of times per day, and deliver a different bulletin to each viewer depending on their interests. Or in the campaign that Spotify just ran with US singer The Weeknd. Spotify created a digital avatar of the singer, which then delivered a personalised message to the user based on their listening data.

Now, VIs are pushing into the mainstream. They’re even colonising legacy cultural forms, such as pop stardom.

Riot Games, the makers of League of Legends, has spent the last few months cultivating a VI on Instagram called Seraphine. This month they announced Seraphine as a playable character in Legends, and also announced that she would ‘live her dream’ as the newest member of their virtual girl group K/DA, which consists of four other Legends characters. K/DA released a new single on 28 October. As of 1 November, it’s had over 20 million YouTube views.


🧞 Now the virtual companions are coming

So where next for virtual humans? Strap in, because this is where things get wild.

A new breed of startups wants to make it easier to create these digital people. Take a look at Synthesia, or Alethea AI, which I featured in the last New Week Same Humans.

Businesses will remain the key clients for a while to come. But technology wants to be democratised, and soon enough startups will empower us all to build virtual humans of our own.

Why would anyone want to do that? To answer that question, we need to understand another deep shift reshaping the world around us in 2020. This one is a shift in our relationship with digital technology.

Across the last few years, we’ve all become accustomed to the proliferation of a new kind of virtual entity: the AI assistant. Right now, our relationship with those entities is primarily functional. Alexa, order me some washing powder. But in 2020, that relationship is changing. It’s moving beyond mere functionality, and starting to encompass power higher-order human needs: status, creativity, and even companionship. People are becoming friends with AIs.

For over three years I’ve been tracking one of the primary examples of this: the AI-fuelled chatbot app Replika, which bills itself as ‘your AI friend’. Chat to your Replika and over time it gets to know you. It asks about that job you applied for, or the argument you had with your girlfriend. It wants to keep you company, and make you reflect on your own behaviour. Total downloads are more than 3 million. The New York Times recently reported that numbers had spiked during the pandemic: over half a million people downloaded Replika in April alone.

Once again we meet our old friend, the weird. It’s easy to laugh at the idea of a person being ‘friends’ with an AI. But if you’re inclined to do so, ask yourself: have you ever said anything to Siri or Alexa with any emotional content? Ever asked an AI assistant about your mood, or a feeling, or a friend? Apple have long known that millions do speak to Siri like that. Way back in 2017 it revealed that it was hiring psychologists into the Siri team, so that she can ‘have more serious conversations’ with users.

The human needs for social connection, self-understanding, and companionship are deep, and eternal. When a technology unlocks new ways to serve these kinds of human needs, new behaviours, attitudes and lifestyles are often the result. Those behaviours may seem strange at first. But eventually, the power of the underlying human needs at work tends to overwhelm our collective resistance. That’s what happened 20 years ago, when the internet unlocked new ways to serve the human needs for social and romantic connection. And it’s happening again now, with AI.

What does this have to do with virtual humans? Siri, Alexa and other AI assistants are only disembodied voices. But we humans are better able to form a connection with beings we can see and hear. So in the years ahead, these AI-fuelled entities will merge with virtual humans, to become a new kind of virtual companion.

It’s already happening. The first iteration of Replika was a text-only chatbot. But now users who pay can create an avatar with a realistic face and voice, and talk to it as they would a friend on the phone.

Meanwhile, tech giant Samsung are working on a new line of ‘humanoid friends’ called NEONs. ‘NEONs will be our friends, collaborators, and companions, continually learning, evolving, and forming memories from their interactions’ says Pranav Mistry, CEO of the Samsung innovation lab behind the project.


👾 The end game is a metaverse full of virtual companions

Soon enough, this trend will intersect with another.

Back in NWSH #15 I wrote about the emergence of the metaverse. That is, of virtual and simulated worlds as domains of truly meaningful human experience. Right now, millions are making new friends inside Animal Crossing, and attending live concerts inside Fortnite.

But soon sophisticated virtual companions will enter the metaverse, too. And as virtual worlds evolve – think compelling virtual and augmented realities – so too will the AI-fuelled entities who people them. It’s not hard to see a host of new behaviours – around social connection, friendship, and, yes, romance – evolving. Think Replika is weird? Get ready.

Of course, it’s a long way from a Travis Scott concert inside Fortnite to a true metaversal virtual companion. But the direction of travel is clear.

In the meantime, I see another foothold for the mainstreaming of virtual companions.

This month, Apple quietly hit 1 billion iPhone users. In 13 years, the smartphone has reconfigured our lives. Nothing since has rivalled its impact.

Could the next innovation to change life for billions be an AI-fuelled virtual companion that radically extends the phone’s project to empower us? I mean a companion that acts as a personal counsellor, guru, and friend. A guide to living in the complex, accelerated tribe that is modern humanity, and to the secrets that lie within our own heart. A Socrates, Freud, Buddha and Dave-from-next-door, always in your pocket.

Under this view, the mainstreaming of virtual companions is less about our desire for a relationship with someone else. Less, that is, about the virtual girlfriends that tech journalists like to write about. And more about our relationship with ourselves: our desire for self-knowledge, emotional security, and life advancement. An AI entity that helps with all that, and that does it with a human face, would tap into eternal aspects of human nature.

It’s not hard to imagine a world where millions feel that they are in a deep relationship with the clarifying mirror that is their AI companion. And that it is their most meaningful relationship of all.

And once we’re in that world, anything is possible. Virtual companions will unlock new ways to serve some of the deepest and most powerful human needs we know. And history shows we can’t hold out against that for long: attitudes and behaviours will change. Rewind 20 years, and internet dating was weird. In 2020, we have the holo-Kardashian, Replika, and Seraphine. Let’s check back 20 years from now, and see where we are.


Same Humans: Assemble

Thanks for reading this week.

Are you convinced that your next big relationship will be with an AI-fuelled virtual companion?

While you think it through, remember that we at New World Same Humans are busy building a community of our own. We started as a small tribe back in January. Today, we’ve grown to 14,000+ curious souls – founders, insight professionals, designers, strategists, marketers and more – all over the world. We’re a diverse group, but we share one trait: an obsession with the trends, forces and ideas reshaping the future.

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Your membership of our community is valued. I’ll be back on Wednesday; until then, be well.

David.


David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.