Beyond Chatbots: Meet Your New Digital Human Friends

Digital humans are here to help you -- possibly more than chatbots or virtual assistants -- if you'll let them.

John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author

June 4, 2024

5 Min Read
Futuristic communication scifi concept. 3D rendering picture
Yevhen Shkolenko via Alamy Stock Photo

Digital humans are computer-generated models that replicate human behavior, appearance and interaction, based on an array of advanced technologies, including natural language processing, computer graphics, and artificial intelligence. "They are usually made to have human-like characteristics, such as the ability to communicate, show emotions, and carrying out tasks in virtual or augmented reality environments," says Simran Chhabria, a data analyst with market research and industry analysis firm Straits Research, in an email interview. 

Simply put, digital humans are representations of human beings created to provide human-like and knowledgeable experiences to the real humans interacting with them, says John Tomik, managing director of Slalom Element Labs, a firm that helps enterprises develop augmented reality and digital human technologies. "Contrary to what you may see in science fiction ... they aren't intended to be a replacement for an actual human being," he notes in an email interview. 

Digital humans are important players in virtual and augmented reality environments, says Matt Aslett, a director with technology research and advisory firm ISG via email. "They are also used in gaming and animation and are being deployed as interactive customer service assistants, providing real-time conversational interfaces to access help and information in multiple industries, including retail and healthcare." 

Related:The Pros and Cons of Using Digital Assistants

Digital humans are useful in a number of industries, including marketing, customer service, education, and healthcare. Chhabria says her organization estimates that the worldwide market for intelligent virtual assistants acting as digital human will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 38% through 2030. 

Applications and Benefits 

Tomik notes that digital humans can fill a variety of roles, such as serving as a website spokesperson and guide or as a friendly, helpful representative answering an online shopper's questions. Far more intriguing is when interactions occur over time, allowing a relationship to be established between the human and digital human. "A great example of this is in education, where the digital human can assist a student over time at their individual pace and needs." 

Digital humans can be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide multi-lingual interactive communication, alleviating the demands on contact centers, service and support staff representatives. "Digital humans are designed to provide a user experience that's more familiar, welcoming, and interactive than text- or speech-based chatbots, encouraging greater engagement to build trust and confidence in sales, marketing, and customer service," Aslett explains. 

Related:The Chatbot Will See You Now: 4 Ethical Concerns of AI in Health Care

Tomik believes there are times when people may feel more comfortable talking to a digital human than a real person, such as when seeking advice on discomforting issues, including addiction, anger management, relationship difficulties, and other deeply personal topics. "It allows people to feel comfortable asking for help without judgment," he notes. 

Potential Drawbacks 

Digital human technology is evolving rapidly, but it's still far from being a complete replacement for human-to-human interaction. "Like AI chatbot interfaces, a digital human interface may struggle to detect nuanced communication traits, such as sarcasm, emotion, and deception, and may be unsuitable for dealing with complex and critical user requests," Aslett says. 

For example, a digital human deployed in an airport to direct customers to the correct departure gate might not provide the best method of dealing with the complexity of customer concerns and questions in the event of a flight cancellation. Aslett also believes that adopters will need to create digital humans that complement human interaction rather than attempt to replace it entirely. There should be processes in place to avoid creating disappointment or frustration if a user struggles to find the answers they're looking for, he advises. 

Related:More Robots Are Coming, But Where Are They Going?

Creating and deploying a digital human demands a great deal of knowledge and in-house talent. "It requires expertise in computer-generated imagery, natural language processing, voice synthesis, machine learning, and other AI capabilities," Aslett says. "Many enterprises will therefore rely on expert advice and guidance from specialist startups, as well as established software vendors and service providers, to understand suitable use cases and develop, deploy, and maintain digital humans." 

Tomik notes that expectations are currently running very high for digital human technology. This means that if not properly designed and deployed, the technology runs the risk of quickly being dismissed as not being useful or regarded as broken, he warns. 

Looking Ahead 

Digital human development is advancing rapidly. Yet as the technology improves, it may soon become difficult to differentiate between virtual and actual interactions. "It's important to keep ethical issues in mind and to make sure that digital humans are developed and put into practice in a way that benefits both users and society at large," Chhabria says. 

Tomik says he's very excited about the future of digital humans. "Hollywood has planted seeds for what these entities might be capable of in the future, but it’s up to us humans to create that future where humans and technology work together to build a better tomorrow."

About the Author(s)

John Edwards

Technology Journalist & Author

John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic Design. He has also written columns for The Economist's Business Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers' Communications Direct. John has authored several books on business technology topics. His work began appearing online as early as 1983. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he wrote daily news and feature articles for both the CompuServe and Prodigy online services. His "Behind the Screens" commentaries made him the world's first known professional blogger.

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