The pace of change in the world of technology can sometimes seem relentless. While many of us are still marvelling at the power of the Internet, mastering the intricacies of our PDAs or deciding whether to buy a new 3G handset next weekend, something new is just around the corner.
Prepare to meet virtual robots or "bots". These are the latest practical application of advances in artificial intelligence and are set to change the way we work, learn and spend our leisure time by making possible meaningful interaction with on-screen characters.
Eberhard Schoneburg, chairman and CEO of Artificial Life, Inc, a Nasdaq-listed US public company, which moved its headquarters to Hong Kong in 2002 to be closer to Asian markets, sees enormous potential. "Search and browser technology will develop into personalised search engines which will act as virtual personal assistants," he explains. "Smart bots go beyond typical images, allowing us to make on-screen characters intelligent and interactive. In the past, the Internet was the only channel for delivery but now, in launching an application, we can serve SMS, multi-media messaging, 3G networks and interactive email," he adds.
The on-screen virtual characters are created by filming a real-life person or cartoon and transforming the footage by programming semantic information, gestures and responses. The resulting interactive robot then effectively listens, reacts and speaks (in text form) when questioned. An individual user communicates by keyboard and, over time, the bot learns to detect any patterns of behaviour and choice. It will analyse these to make suggestions, draw attention to items of interest or point out special offers.
Clearly there is no limit to the range of possible applications. Already, Artificial Life has developed an online university, or "Bot College", which provides remote e-learning on the Internet or mobile devices. "The focus is on language learning and science," says Mr Schoneburg. "The teachers are bots, which make learning more entertaining and fun, particularly for the 13 to 25 age group who prefer images to be graphically-enhanced. One interface is an Albert Einstein character. An initial assessment test enables a profile to be completed and the user then gets a unique, customised course which 'Einstein' teaches, answering questions and leading the student through key principles."
Besides education, Ernest Axelbank, Artificial Life's chief technology officer, is working on applications for interactive games, marketing and entertainment. The company has just launched an "Eco Champ" game, designed to teach players about renewable resources and is collaborating to produce content for broadband and 3G mobile phone providers.
With plans for expansion in 2004, including the setting-up of a new research centre in Guangzhou in the third quarter, Artificial Life is on the hunt for new talent. "We need knowledge engineers," says Mr Axelbank. "They should preferably have a technical degree and some programming experience but do not have to be specialists. To create scripts for characters they should be able to think logically, possess creativity and have writing and didactical skills."
After initial training, a knowledge engineer would work with software developers on the formatting routines and logic of applications and their deployment to different user channels and mediums. Specific projects might include developing storyboards for new prototypes or "data mining" - analysing conversations between robots and users to compile information and statistics. The company's general philosophy is that ability is the basis for promotion ahead of other factors.
Plans to roll out current applications to countries across Asia are already taking shape and Mr Schoneburg is confident the virtual robot will soon be a part of our daily lives. "Trends are moving this way," he confirms. "Companies are opening up the Internet and mobile networks for people without any prior computer training. Once the technology knows you and your habits, it knows how to help you like a personal assistant or friend."