Digital Squared

Say Hello To Digital People

September 20, 2022 Tom Andriola Season 1 Episode 1
Say Hello To Digital People
Digital Squared
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Digital Squared
Say Hello To Digital People
Sep 20, 2022 Season 1 Episode 1
Tom Andriola

In this episode, Tom speaks with Soul Machines CEO and Co-Founder, Greg Cross. Together they discuss the Metaverse, Covid’s impact on digital transformation and how digital people can help shape the future of our increasingly digital and transactional world. 

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Tom speaks with Soul Machines CEO and Co-Founder, Greg Cross. Together they discuss the Metaverse, Covid’s impact on digital transformation and how digital people can help shape the future of our increasingly digital and transactional world. 

Tom: 0:34
Today on the podcast I sit down with Greg Cross who is the CEO and Co-Founder of Soul Machines. Soul Machines is a digital people company re-imagining how real and virtual humans can connect in today’s digital worlds. Greg was a perfect first guest for our now-rebranded podcast, focused on life in an increasingly digital world, and he offers great insight into what the future of the Metaverse and digital people can be. I enjoyed our conversation and look forward to the work we’ll continue to do with Soul Machines to enhance the UCI student experience. I hope you enjoy it as well.

Tom: 1:11
Greg, welcome. And thank you for joining us today.

Greg: 1:14
Yeah, great to be here. Nice to be talking to you guys.

Tom: 1:18
Greg, you've been a serial entrepreneur. You sold your companies in the past to Apple, your last company was in the wireless charging technology space, what was your inspiration around Soul Machines?

Greg: 1:30
I kind of had this focus over the last, you know, 10-15 years of my life to really look at how science and deep tech makes its way from research labs into the marketplace. And so that's kind of been the core theme of my work over the last 10 to 15 years. So very, very fortunate to have a close working relationship with the University of Auckland, which is New Zealand's top research university, and now been incredibly fortunate to work with some of you know, some of the most amazing world class research they've been responsible for. So initially, the wireless charging, research portfolio that, as you mentioned, could be commercialized and or help commercialize and we sold to Apple and now, Soul Machines. And that really came about through a mutual friend introducing me to Dr. Mark Segar, who's my co-founder and business partner at Soul Machines.

Tom: 2:27
That's amazing. So the pandemic has had a lot of impacts on our society…how has the pandemic changed the trajectory of Soul Machines?

Greg: 2:36
Yeah, from a personal point of view, it locked me inside of New Zealand for two years. So everybody thinks that New Zealand is this beautiful paradise, but it still gets to feel like a prison from time to time. So for me, personally, it massively disrupted my life. I mean, I've spent my whole life traveling, working in different parts of the world commercializing technology in different parts of the world. So very, very different. Life for me, personally, I'm running a global team of people locked down in New Zealand via zoom for literally two years. I left the US the last time in February of 2020. And I finally made it back here in April of 2022. At the time COVID arrived on us, I think we had about 100 people in the organization. When I got back to the US in April, it was 220 people. Recruiting and building an executive leadership team remotely, onboarding people remotely trying to build company culture and commercialize technology, raising capital remotely. So all of these things are things that we've never had to do before. And in many respects, we've always believed couldn't be done like that before. So that's kind of how it impacted me and the way we built our organization and raised capital. Have to say, I didn't miss doing investor roadshows. But doing all of those via zoom was a very, very effective use of time. From a market opportunity point of view, I mean, it really, really accelerated the things we were talking about before the pandemic arrived. If you wind the clock back to 2019, as technology geeks, we're spending a lot of time and in the future, it's we're spending a lot of time talking about the fourth industrial revolution, the robots are coming, they're going to steal our jobs, they're going to rule over us, they're going to kill us. You know, these are, these were the discussions that we were having back in 2019. And, of course, the pandemic came along, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs kicked in, we became much more focused on our health, and our families and in our relationships. So, you know, all of that conversation went away. But of course, the world became infinitely more digital at a greater rate of knots. So, you know, that whole Fourth Industrial Revolution actually happened when we weren't even talking about it, and, and then accelerated it, in many respects. So if we look at the timeline we were on previously, we're probably about 2025, 2026 already. So, you know, the world became more digital. And a more digital world is ultimately, in most cases, a more transactional world. So, you know, for us, the world that we live in, we make Digital people, we create, we enable more human and emotional connection via digital worlds and via machines. So it really got many of the biggest brands and many different industries around the globe thinking about how do we create human connections? How do we personalize our brand at scale in a more digital world. So these are some of the things that have played out for us over the last couple of years.

Tom: 5:48
And that's great. And I so much agree with what you just said, which is why we call this Digital Squared, life in an increasingly digital world, because I agree with you, the digitalization, all of our experiences have accelerated, because the pandemic, just put it into high gear. But, you're gonna roll right into my next question here. And you started to answer it, but I’m gonna ask you to peel it back for our audience, because I think we have a lot of people out there who are still kind of struggling about how to get comfortable in this increasingly digital world. In the last conversation you and I had you talked about how the human element in AI helps build trust with the end user. Can you expand on that for our audience?

Greg: 6:27
Sure. Well, there's a couple of fundamental principles here. I mean, as human beings, we are biologically wired to interact through face to face communications. You know, of course, we communicate in lots of different ways today. We use text, we use social media. So there's so many different ways we communicate today, and we use different forms of communication to do it very, very effectively, very, very quickly. But the ultimate form of human communication is through face to face interaction. It's where we enable this fundamental need for emotional connection. And that emotional connection is driven literally by my brain and parts of my brain communicating with your brain. It also comes about because as human beings, so much of how we communicate is set through context and nonverbal communication. So when you're interacting with a company via its website, it's e-commerce site via its app, there isn't that human connection there, there isn't that brand connection there. If you look at big companies and big brands, they've spent billions of dollars over decades to create brand values, brand connection. They've used different medias like television commercials, like print media, like advertising on social media media and Google search in more recent times, and it's enabled a level of personalization, but increasingly we've seen that connection being broken, or that connection not existing. So if you think about a digital world, if it's purely focused on transaction, how do brands establish a value? How do they establish a connection with their customers that enable loyalty? And one of the core concepts, one of the core things that we focus on is using digital people, creating a digital workforce, digital influences, digital salespeople, digital companions, that enable brands to connect on a face to face basis with their consumers.

Tom: 8:36
Yeah, that's, that's amazing. I want to talk about the Metaverse, right, lots of buzz and hype around the Metaverse. When you talk to people about Soul Machines, how do you describe it and fit it into the context of what people think they understand as the Metaverse?

Greg: 8:53
Yeah, you're right. The Metaverse is many things to many people today. And, it's very, very early in its evolution and development of all the technology and the different layers of the technology that we're going to need to bring it into reality and to bring it to the fruition or the imagination that we will have as the potential it could be. I tend to break it down into some pretty simple components. The digital world that we live in today is the internet, and it's a two dimensional world. It's a flat screen world. It's a world where this device (holds up cell phone) democratized it in the early days of the internet. So I mean, the Metaverse is currently now, if I use the, the evolution of the Internet as an example, the Metaverse is where the internet was in probably about 1996, 1997. But if you stop and think about that, we started to and the internet started getting hyped and came into public consciousness 96, 97. Browser wars, Netscape, Microsoft going head to head. We then had the .com bubble and bust, 2000, 2001 and the smartphone, the device that actually democratized the internet didn’t arrive until 2007. So we've got a pretty exciting 10 years ahead of us when it comes to the Metaverse. So, in simple terms, the internet world is a world of 2D, and we’re now 20 plus years into the evolution of the Internet and the maturity of the tech stack and everything that we can do in that world. The Metaverse, emerging world, the biggest difference for me is it's a three dimensional world. It's a more immersive world. So, think about that fundamental paradigm shift from a world of 2d to a world of 3d. And one of the things I happen to believe is the internet, the 2D world, which we currently have today, is going to be the onramp for the Metaverse and the 3D world of tomorrow for a very, very long time. And the way I look at things, at least.

Tom: 11:06
One of the things that I've heard about is sold machines’ new entertainment division, and I know you're really excited about this, where you’re featuring real hyper realistic digital twins of real life, celebrities, athletes and entertainers. What makes you most excited about this effort? And where do you think this takes us next?

Greg: 11:25
It is a really, really exciting area for us. And it's very, very closely aligned to what we're doing with big brands. So you know, celebrities are brands in their own right, today. So the connection here is we're dealing with enterprise brands, consumer brands in the corporate world. And once we get into the world of celebrity, where we're working with celebrity brands. In both cases, brands are trying to find ways to directly connect with their consumers. So if we think about the future of brand experience, in the case of the work we're doing with celebrities, what we're really focused on is how do we create the future of fan experience? We’re doing a lot of interesting projects. We've created a digital twin of Jack Nicklaus, the greatest of all time in the world of golf. Jack in real life is 83. We wound the clock for Jack's digital twin and made him 38 years old again. It's a legacy project for Jack, it's about how does he extend his brand? And how do people remember Jack? You know, in the future, how do we make Jack's brand relevant to young people coming into the game of golf today? So these are all ways in which we think about the future of fan experience. Most of us don't get the opportunity to interact one on one with our heroes. Whether it's our favorite NBA player, our favorite musician, our our favorite A-list, Hollywood actor or actress. So, most of us just don't get that opportunity in life to have that connection. And so the concept of a digital twin enables personal interaction at scale for fans. It means celebrities can build a community of fans that they can interact with in a very, very personal way. And once you build that community, you open up all sorts of ways to monetize that community. Whether it's through brand sponsorship, or whether it's through the use of NFT's to create digital experiences, which can be married with real world experiences. I mean, if I used digital Carmelo Anthony NBA All Star as an example, in the future, you buy a VIP experience to go see the Lakers, see Melo play with the Lakers and the stadium in Los Angeles. And as part of that VIP experience as an NFT, and that NFT gives you access to a virtual reality experience where you can be sitting on your court-side seats, having a one on one conversation with digital Melo about what's going to happen in the game today. So these are some of the types of experiences that we think about and we're working to bring to life Today.

Tom: 14:10
I know one of the things is we've played with the technology and are starting to think about how it applies to some of our worlds here at the University of California, Irvine. You know, one of the things that's come up is, this is not just a two dimensional, it's the three dimensional experience, but it's also emotive. We actually had a very detailed conversation with a member of your team about how the expressions on the face of the person that you're having this conversation with, is changing and trying to model in the same way that we use a lot of nonverbal communication to connect with people. And when you think about that, I didn't get a chance to have a one on one experience with my hero, and now I'm not just hearing stories, but I'm asking questions. There's a response that's tailored to my questions. I can see the smile I created on my hero's face, from my question. It does get to be a really different experience. And so we think that that's really exciting and has lots of applications, whether it's around the expression of emotion, empathy, in situations like health care, we think there's an incredibly powerful connection tool that we see in the platform. So let's talk a little bit. Our first foray working with Soul Machines and the technology and the platform is, is really thinking about the future of our student experience. So, how students experience their education and student life. Where do you think the possibilities of that are in terms of creating a different type of experience for those who go to university are through a technology platform like Soul Machines?

Greg: 15:41
Yeah, there's a whole bunch to unpack there for me. So yeah, first off, you talk about the sort of the experience that you've enjoyed, and you guys are thinking about in terms of the, the emotional responsiveness of the digital people we created. And very, very simply, that type of interaction has been created by some world leading deep tech research. And in creating a new paradigm for animation, if we think of animation in the movie industry, or the games industry, this is all pre-recorded animation, it's all human acted animation, we've all seen the concepts of actors playing the role of a digital character, whether it's the giant blue characters from the movie Avatar, or Woody from Toy Story, those performances are created by real human actors. They're captured using motion capture cameras, the data is processed, and then that data is used to bring the CGI characters to life. The fundamental difference here is we've created this working model of a brain, we call it a digital brain. And so this is the concept of Live Interactive, autonomous animation, you and I are being animated here by our respective brains. So, that's the first part of it. The second part of it, the questions, you're making us in terms of the area of education now. You know, we're so excited about the potential for our digital people to play a huge role in the way in which education is developed, and as it is delivered as we move forward into the future. Because there's some fundamental challenges that we know that the education sector had always had to deal with. I mean, we simply don't have enough teachers in this world. You know, it doesn't matter whether you're talking about elementary, high schools, or college education systems, we simply don't have as many teachers as we need. And we don't have them in all of the communities in places we would like to have them. So, there's this opportunity to use digital people as companions, as tutors, and as coaches. We think of it as an extraordinarily exciting way in which to amplify the resources that we have. Particularly when we're talking about more remote communities. And this whole world of digital education as it's evolving. So that's one part of it. The final thing I'd comment on is one of the things we constantly get, and this is through both research and through customers, consumers interacting with our digital people, they actually prefer in many applications to talk to digital people, because they don't feel judged. Human judgment creates fear. And that means, in the world of education and a classroom type environment, if we don't understand the question or we don't understand what the homework is, many people don't put their hand up, they don't ask the question. Particularly if you know somebody else asked the question, and they still don't understand it. So, one of the big opportunities here is to create a safer interaction which democratizes, the potential for education for everybody. So that's another area that we're really, really excited about in the field of education.

Tom: 18:56
So we know that there are people out there that are less comfortable with where all this is taking us. They're skeptical of the concept of digital people, the fear around the deep fakes and people that have seen in that, and that this just as another potential enabling of that. How do you deal with some of the skepticism that people bring to you in the form of questions back to what you're developing and what you're deploying? And how you're helping companies and individuals utilize it?

Greg: 19:26
Yeah, I mean, look, the world of artificial intelligence, the world of autonomously animated digital characters and the creation of a digital workforce…we're at the beginning of this era. We're at the beginning of this Metaverse. The beginning of this Metaverse area. So yeah, we're going to see a technology adoption curve where we're dealing with, at the moment, with people who want to be first and people who want to be innovative and look at new ways of doing business. As we've already talked about, today, this era of digital transformation, is really, really speeding up. There's so much technology still to be developed. There’s the whole regulatory use of digital people, the ethical use of digital people. All of these, you know, in AI. The debates really are just starting on many of these issues, many of these things today, and these are going to be really, really important debates. So the most important thing I can say to anybody is, this world is coming to a Metaverse near you. It's already on its way. So it becomes really, really important that we take responsibility for engaging in the debate and looking at the things we want to do differently. As this world evolves, some of the things that we just let happen by default as the world of social media evolved, how can we take some of the lessons that we've learned while we're still learning from the world of social media? And think about that and apply it to the world of artificial intelligence? Digital people? The Metaverse? I'm an optimist. As an entrepreneur, as a technology entrepreneur, I'm an optimist. I like to think that this technology that  I'm partially responsible for creating, I want to think that this is going to have a really, really positive impact on the world. We can go back and we can think about the sort of big technology waves we've had over the last few decades; Yes, some jobs have been lost, but we are, by and large…new industries have been created. New roles, new jobs, new economic growth has been delivered through these massive technology advances. So, I'm an optimist that this is a technology that is going to have a very, very positive impact on the world. And we just talked about the world of education, and health care using digital people to augment the skills of the amazing teachers and doctors and nurses we have in society who are delivering the most fundamental of services under more and more stress, and with fewer and fewer of them available to us. So yeah, I remain incredibly optimistic that this is going to have a big and profound effect on our lives and our societies and our communities.

Tom: 22:12
Greg, that's fantastic. I want to thank you so much for joining us today. We're really excited about the work that we're doing with Soul Machines and really appreciate you joining us on the podcast.

Greg: 22:22
Oh, my pleasure. Great to be with you.