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They created Digital People. Now, they’ve made celebrities available as Digital Twins
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They created Digital People. Now, they’ve made celebrities available as Digital Twins

Protocol talks to Soul Machines’ CEO about the power of AI in the metaverse

GREG CROSS (CEO, Soul Machines)

GREG CROSS (CEO, Soul Machines) is one of the original tech nomads, spending his career traveling to and living in every major tech market in the world. He now lives in New Zealand but creates businesses that compete on the international stage. Most recently, PowerbyProxi, a wireless charging company he co-founded, was sold to Apple in 2017. In 2016, Greg co-founded Soul Machines to build a Human OS for Artificial Intelligence and explore the future of human-machine cooperation.

Soul Machines is at the cutting edge of AGI research with its unique Digital Brain, based on the latest neuroscience and developmental psychology research. Partnering with innovative people and brands like Carmelo Anthony, Procter & Gamble, NESTLÉ® TOLL HOUSE®, Maryville University, and The World Health Organization, Soul Machines is re-imagining what is possible in the delivery and underlying economics of empathetic customer experience. Greg holds multiple chair positions, is the Sir John Logan Campbell Executive in Residence at the University of Auckland Business School, and was inducted into the New Zealand Hi-Tech Hall of Fame in 2019.

Nicklaus meets and chats online with his Digital Twin in May 2022.

Soul Machines co-founder and CEO Greg Cross and his co-founder Mark Sagar, Ph.D., FRSNZ are leading their Auckland and San Francisco-based teams to create AI-enabled Digital People™ to populate the internet, at first, and soon the metaverse. As this field has grown over the past six years, enterprise brands and celebrities have increasingly turned to Soul Machines to digitize their workforces and level up in how they engage with customers and fans.

They humanize AI to create Digital People that take input from the environment — a question, a facial expression like a smile — and respond in real time. Digital People, such as the one used by Nestle to serve as a digital cookie coach on its website, allow brands to offer an empathic and ultra-personalized customer experience.

Using similar autonomous automation technology, Digital Twins take the customer and fan experience to another level. The celebrity-based avatars boast lifelike features because a real person is captured, creating a “Digital Twin” of the star’s likeness. It can answer customers’ questions with responses that are aligned with the celebrity’s expertise, background and legacy.

The entertainment and sports industries could benefit from developing interactive digital avatars, but the cross-pollination of virtual animation and AI must veer far from 2Pac-hologram territory. Soul Machines’ approach is layered with next-gen AI applications, such as its Digital Brain technology, which allows for natural-language processing and empathetic, responsive behavior. In layman’s terms, that means we could talk to these Digital Twins in real time, but in the entertainment world, that relationship could get even more compelling.

Protocol spoke to Cross to learn more about their newest release, a Digital Twin of Jack Nicklaus, the retired golfing champ who’s won a stunning 117 tournaments. Depicting Nicklaus at 38 years old, his Digital Twin represents the potential of this technology, allowing fans to ask questions and hear stories from his 60-plus years on the links.

Digital Twins will soon partner with retail brands (among others) to offer expertise and recommendations on products and services, as well. Cross takes us on a tour into a technology that may be nascent now but could soon become the competitive edge that sets successful brands apart from the rest.

Extensive capture technology maps Nicklaus’ facial expressions.

What motivated you to launch Soul Machines with Mark Sagar, and what makes your Digital People appealing to brands?

I’m a serial tech entrepreneur, and I just came out of a previous business that sold to Apple. I started looking around for my next move and, through a mutual friend, was reintroduced to Mark. I had met him before, and he blew me away with who he is as a person and his commitment to his life’s work. He’s won two Academy Awards for the animation technology he built that was used in films such as “Avatar” and “King Kong.”

We had a beer, and he talked about coming up with a new paradigm for animating digital characters, and Soul Machines began soon after, in July 2016.

As for our Digital People, we see them as the future of customer and fan engagement. We’re living in an increasingly digital world, and the major challenge for brands is creating those personal connections with fans in a more digital world. And that’s where Digital People become important.

We, as humans, are hardwired to emotionally engage face-to-face. Soul Machines technology can autonomously automate back-and-forth conversations that are each unique. We see Digital People being such an incredible way to create scalable customer interactions in digital worlds.

What competitive advantage would these avatars offer to enterprise brands?

If I create a digital workforce, all of a sudden, I’ve created a highly scalable workforce that is always on. Those customer-centric Digital People can have 1,000 or 100,000 conversations, and these are uniquely personal interactions that are hard to achieve and staff in the real world today. Conversational AI becomes that repository for the brand experience.

Also, brands get a smoother consistency of experiences with Digital People who can retain all that data from those interactions. Especially as we move into metaverse worlds of tomorrow, adopting this technology will truly offer competitive advantages to brands.

The Digital Jack Nicklaus avatar is fascinating to us. How did you create it? How did he react to the idea?

We’ve always wanted to be in the digital celebrity experience space. We first worked with rapper will.i.am in 2019 by creating his Digital Twin for an AI documentary series.

We wanted to test this concept further by having amazing CGI lead to hyper-realistic people who are autonomously animated to create the ultimate fan experience.

We are in talks with a range of different celebrities. We enjoyed the enthusiasm Jack Nicklaus and the Nicklaus Companies have for moving the brand into the future.

With Soul Machines, he wanted to extend his brand to the next generation of golfers. He wanted to be 38 again, when he was at the prime of his career, so we scanned him and his son Gary, who looks so much like him. The kind of storytelling engagement that will come from Digital Jack will build off all the tournaments he’s won and the many golf courses he’s designed.

Share your vision for how you think the metaverse will mature in the coming years, and how Soul Machines will play a role in that maturation.

We are only at the beginning of the metaverse. The hardware that brings it to life hasn’t matured yet, and isn’t defined as a tech stack now. The most important thing for us is to encourage brands to think about how investing in something today creates seamless experiences tomorrow.

AI gets stronger and better with each interaction, and that’s why Digital People provide the most personable and scalable customer experiences that will live on the metaverse and elsewhere. We envision a digital workforce that can move seamlessly between 2D and immersive worlds, and that’s really exciting to us.