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AI with a Human Face: The case for—and against—digital employees

Ren (left) and Rin (right) are digital-human shopping assistants created by Pinscreen for fashion retailer ZOZOtown. Photos courtesy of Pinscreen

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Mike Seymour, Dan Lovallo, Kai Riemer, Alan R. Dennis, and Lingyao (Ivy) Yuan for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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All companies want to give their customers richer and more engaging experiences. That’s one of the most effective ways to create and sustain competitive advantage. The challenge is to offer those experiences at scale without depersonalizing or commodifying them.

Throwing people at the problem becomes prohibitively expensive very quickly. And even if a company had enough employees to offer individual service at scale, in many situations customers prefer to interact with someone of their own gender, age, or ethnic background—an impossible staffing task. Moreover, research suggests that humans do not always produce the best results for every job. For example, Deloitte UK found that human-staffed contact centers are not only more expensive to run but often deliver a less consistent customer experience than automated channels—and they sometimes generate negative customer-service experiences.

Enter the digital human. Rapid progress in computer graphics, coupled with advances in artificial intelligence (AI), is now putting humanlike faces on chatbots and other computer-based interfaces. Digital humans mimic human communication as they offer a range of services: Companies are currently using them as sales assistants, corporate trainers, and social media influencers, for example. When deployed at scale, digital humans will radically change the business landscape. They may not be as capable or versatile as human employees, but they have clear advantages when it comes to cost, customizability, and scalability. Once “hired,” they never tire, never complain, never seek a raise, and always follow company policy.

Digital humans are already making real money for their employers. Soul Machines, an autonomous animation software company, has upwards of 50 digital humans deployed in organizations around the world. According to cofounder Mark Sagar, one client in the cosmetics industry, whose digital sales assistant recommends and models products and engages with customers about how to use them, has seen sales conversion rates increase dramatically. Visitors to the client’s websites are now four and a half times more likely to complete the entire transaction and make a purchase than they were before digital sales assistants were employed.

For the past seven years we have been observing and researching the emerging field of digital humans, drawing on our decades of experience in the visual effects industry. We have worked alongside and consulted on projects with companies that create digital humans, including Pinscreen, Soul Machines, and Epic Games, witnessing firsthand the enormous growth and advances in the field. Within a decade, we believe, managers at most companies are likely to have a digital human as an assistant or an employee.

In this article we explain how different types of digital humans interact with customers and employees, discuss the situations in which using a digital human is appropriate, and present examples of digital employees working in organizations as diverse as accounting giant EY, Yahoo Japan, the Arab Banking Corporation, and the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Mike Seymour is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney and a director of Motus Lab.
Dan Lovallo is a professor of business strategy at the University of Sydney Business School and a senior adviser to McKinsey & Company.
Kai Riemer is a professor of information technology and organization at the University of Sydney.
Alan R. Dennis is a professor and the John T. Chambers Chair of Internet Systems at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
Lingyao (Ivy) Yuan is an assistant professor at the Ivy College of Business at Iowa State University.


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