May your avatar follow you

Waiting for the emergence of universal avatars able to travel between virtual worlds, you can already have an avatar image that follows you around the web – a Gravatar, Globally Recognized Avatar. You just sign-up, upload an image, and assign it to your email address. From then on, your Gravatar, an 80×80 pixel avatar image that follows you from weblog to weblog will appear beside your name on any Gravatar-equipped blog you comment on.

Gravatar is now part of Automattic which means that the service is going to be even better. Features that previously required payment are now freely available to everyone. They will also be getting an upgrade soon.

British government wants to police virtual worlds

The British government is planning to take a firmer hand in policing activities within virtual worlds, in an acknowledgement of their increasing popularity. Lord Triesman, a minister at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, recently said that virtual worlds present "sharp challenges" such as child pornography, identity fraud, money laundering and copyright infringement in virtual worlds which need to be controlled. Lord Triesman refused to reveal whether specific legislation was planned.

Some restrictions have already been imposed on virtual worlds. Second Life, for instance, was recently forced to close all its casinos in order to fall in line with US laws banning online gaming.

Zabaware wins the “most human” computer of the year prize

Zabaware’s Ultra Hal Assistant software won the 17th annual Loebner Prize Competition for Artificial Intelligence. The company’s awarded chatterbot software will give your computer a personality using AI, speech recognition technology, and real-time animation. Ultra Hal can be used as an entertainment program, a companion, or an office assistant. It learns from conversations, evolving and improving the more it talks with a person. In addition to chat it can perform such useful functions as remembering and reminding of appointments, keeping an address or a phone book, dialing phone numbers, launching programs and recent documents on command, and more. Ultra Hal will even offer you help with most of your Windows programs. And, last but not least, the Zabaware software utilizes an advanced realtime 3D character engine that delivers 3-D artificial human characters so convincing and engaging you could swear they were real.

The Loebner Prize is an annual competition where software programs attempt to convince human judges that they are actually people. In a Turing Test a judge talks with 2 “entities” - a human and a computer - simultaneously through a text-based instant messaging system. It is up to the judge to decide which is which.


Virtual worlds allow for educational opportunities

Spending time in virtual reality is not only about entertainment, but also learning. Educators have already realized that Second Life provides them with unique opportunities to connect with students in a virtual landscape. What is more, it enhances communication between students and faculty as it's often more convenient to meet in a virtual world than it is to schedule an in-person appointment. It is also an opportunity to speak with geographically scattered colleagues who may not have the chance to meet in real life.

An experiment to see how Second Life can be used to promote instruction, research, cultural and economic development and to provide students with a virtual learning space has already been initiated. If the results are satisfactory, they could bring a new dimension to distance learning.

Thought-controlled avatars in Second Life

Researchers from the Biomedical Engineering Laboratory at Keio University in Japan have developed a thought-control interface that can direct the movement of a Second Life avatar and enables users to control the avatars on screen in real time. All you have to do is think about moving various body parts — when the user imagines moving his/her own feet the avatar walks forward, and it turns right and left when the user imagines moving his/her right and left arms. In other words: the brain-computer interface (BCI) technology allows the user to exercise real-time control over the avatar in the 3D virtual world without moving a muscle. Future plans are to improve the BCI so that users can make Second Life avatars perform more complex movements and gestures.

You may think that a brain-computer interface was designed to make the life of the lazy people even easier, or that using the BCI instead of a keyboard will cause Second Lifers’ arms muscles to die away. But that was not the intention of the researchers. They hope the mind-controlled avatar, which was created through a joint medical engineering project involving Keio’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine and the Tsukigase Rehabilitation Center, will one day help people with serious physical impairments communicate and do business in Second Life. That’s indeed a noble goal.

I, Robot, take you, Robert, to be my wedded husband?

Do current trends in robotics and artificial intelligence really point to the possibility of humans and robots forming personal relationships?

Concluding from the changing attitudes towards the meaning of marriage and the development of AI, within a few decades robots will be so humanlike in their appearance and functionality, in their personality, and in their expression of emotions, that many people will be falling in love with them, have intimate relationships with them, and even marrying them. This controversial statement comes from the recently defended doctoral thesis of David Levy, a British artificial intelligence researcher and international chess master. The thesis titled “Intimate Relationships with Artificial Partners” was presented at the University of Maastricht in The Netherlands.

David Levy says that in the past people only showed affection for other humans, but that this has now expanded to include pets and even robotic dogs. In his opinion, this trend will eventually lead to humans loving sophisticated robots. Such predictions may not be as groundless as they seem: in near future we will be able to build robots that will not only look almost, or even just, like real people, but also be programmed to share our views, likes or dislikes, knowledge and values. If our expectations of our partner change, all we’d have to do is reprogramme him. Doesn’t it sound like a dream of an ideal partner come true?


Portable avatars to travel between virtual worlds?

At the Virtual Worlds Conference and Expo at San Jose, California, I.B.M. and Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, announced plans to develop open standards that will allow avatars to roam from one virtual community to another.

At the moment, for every virtual world visitors have to build a different avatar, which is pretty time-consuming. An open system would mean that people will only need to create one avatar which could keep the same name, appearance and custom data whether it was in Second Life or anywhere else in cyberspace. However, it will take time before we face the era of universal avatars crossing the borders of different virtual worlds. Will they need to apply for a passport?

CAPTCHA helps to keep out bots and preserve books

CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart), a weapon used to fight spammers is now helping university researchers preserve old books and manuscripts. Carnegie Mellon is using it to help decipher words in books that machines cannot read.

The CMU research team, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is involved in digitising old books and manuscripts supplied by a non-profit organisation called the Internet Archive, and uses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to examine scanned images of texts and turn them into digital text files which can be stored and searched by computers. Unfortunately, due to the poor quality of the original documents the OCR software is unable to read about one in ten words. To solve this problem the team takes images of such words and uses them as CAPTCHAs. These CAPTCHAs, known as reCAPTCHAS, are then distributed to websites around the world to be used in place of conventional CAPTCHAs. Thanks to the adoption of reCAPTCHAs by popular websites like Facebook, Twitter and StumbleUpon, the system is helping to decipher about one million words every day, allowing the CMU team to digitise documents and manuscripts as fast as the Internet Archive can supply them. How is it possible? Well, when visitors decipher the reCAPTCHAs to gain access to the web site, another word from an old book or manuscript is digitised and sent back to CMU. Simple but brilliant, isn’t it.

Why not have an avatar salesperson?

Having a virtual assistant on your web site might soon be not enough to distinguish your company from others working in the same field. Maybe you should consider hiring a virtual salesperson. A talking one, of course.

Why have them? Animated speaking characters, enabling you to deliver your message using both sight and sound, reinforce your messaging and establish trust. Research has shown that virtual salespeople can increase your conversion and sales and create a lasting impression that will drive traffic and increase the likelihood of return visits. Avatar salespeople are also a great way to differentiate your company and its web site from your competitors. You will be able to create a vast variety of animated characters whose image will appeal to your target group.

Virtual salespeople can also be used to promote your products and services at Online auctions, providing higher virtual sales and increasing awareness. Talking characters have been proven to make using it eBay auctions stand out. If you want to let your Online clients see and hear the difference, an avatar salesperson might be a good way to do so.


Will getting a job depend on using a proper avatar?

Job interviews in Second Life are growing more prevalent as screening tools before companies bring candidates in for final, face-to-face interviews. This tendency is likely to grow as interviewing prospective job candidates online is a lot cheaper than many real-world meetings. It also reveals more about a candidate than they may realize. This means that if you have an interview is Second Life, you should choose your avatar very carefully because it can give potential employers clues about you. Apparently, your avatar can impact whether or not you get a job.

Companies use cues from avatars when screening job candidates in virtual worlds, and what your avatar looks like can impact your chances to land the position you want. Interviewers are judging your avatar by its dress and actions just as surely as they would judge you in real life. So when you head into Second Life for a job interview, select your avatar just as carefully as you would choose your clothes for a face-to-face meeting. Remember that your choice of an avatar and its mannerisms represent you.

Can writing software make you a Nobel Prize winner?

While writing an official email, a short story, speech, medical presentation or business plan, have you ever wished your written English was more sophisticated? Well, wave your troubles goodbye and say hello to the new writing software, which not only checks spelling and grammar but comes up with the word you are looking for when trying to finesse a legal form, a piece of creative writing or even a love letter. This innovative, patent-pending technology is said to be suitable for native and non-native English speakers alike. WhiteSmoke software will "take your writing from simple to sophisticated" and "turn prosaic dunces into lyrical poets". Sounds promising.

And now imagine that a mediocre writer improves the style of his prose thanks to this innovative software, becomes successful and awarded. Or that politicians who normally struggle to explain themselves in plain English suddenly start to give nice speeches written well in advance. Such situations are, for now, hypothetical but not that hard to imagine, and show that intelligent technologies are, at least sometimes, a real key to success...

Will iLearning replace eLearning?

A combination of eLearning and Artificial Intelligence – this is what uMind, a company specializing in the delivery of a patented, second-generation eLearning software, gives you. Their iLearning technology understands and responds to the human learning process.

uMind will deliver two pioneering platforms that teach rather than simply deploy content. Harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence, uSim and uLearn estimate, control and anticipate the learner’s behavior, providing him with relevant, adapted feedback in real-time. But that’s not all – uMind created a solution to one of the most significant weaknesses associated with distance learning: the absence of interaction between the learner and the instructor that normally intervenes inside the framework of a classroom. Her name is Aimy.

Aimy is an AI-enhanced technology that behaves like a virtual instructor. This advanced technology builds and modifies the learning path in real-time, and generates various pedagogical strategies according to the learner’s needs. Aimy will assist and prompt the learner throughout the course, correct skill gaps, assess the learner’s cognitive/emotional profile and customize the course according to it. Oh, and just look at her. Isn’t she the teacher you always dreamt of?