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Culled of Personality

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Aspenite Peter Plantec, author of Virtual Humans, photographed on Monday, January 25, 2004 at the Aspen Times. His website is on the computer in the background with V-Human Mark Laing shown. Aspen Times photo/Nick Saucier.
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“Personality takes you a long way in this world.”

” Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson)

in “Pulp Fiction”



If Ray Kurzweil’s foreword to Peter Plantec’s new book, “Virtual Humans,” is to be believed, then virtual beings are well on their way to becoming an indispensable part of life on Earth.

Plantec’s goal is to make sure that these beings are engaging, possessed of a sense of humor, capable of dialogue and facial expressions. Plantec won’t be satisfied ” and says real humans won’t be either ” unless our virtual counterparts have personality.



In “Virtual Humans,” Snowmass Village resident Plantec provides the tools, including a CD-ROM, for a user to create her own virtual human. Such a V-person, like Plantec’s own Sylvie, would be capable of speech and facial expressions. But the majority of Plantec’s book is devoted not to the technical nuts and bolts of V-people, but to the equally important element of personality.

“Virtual Humans,” published in November, is concerned more with things like wit, individual history, language and emotion than with writing computer code. The author believes that if a virtual human is not sufficiently engaging, even enjoyable to interact with, real people will reject them and the opportunities they represent.

Plantec is impressed with what V-people are capable of ” handling household chores, researching on the Internet, and even teaching. But he believes that what he calls the artistry of virtual humans is lagging behind the function.

“The programming has been developed by people who tend not to be interested in the personality aspect,” said the 61-year-old Plantec, whose vast work experiences include creating programs for gifted children and teaching autistic children, clinical psychology and teaching animation at Silicon Studios, a Santa Monica school for digital animators. “So in my company, Virtual Personalities Inc. ” which is no longer in existence ” what I realized was we needed programmers, but also artists and psychologists to make the programs more interesting. Instead of having the programmers build something and the artists deal with it, we designed our virtual humans so that programmers were in the service of the artistry.

“The art is the important thing. They’re worthless without the art. They’re boring and people don’t like them. If they have personality and are entertaining, people like them.”

“Virtual Humans” contains chapters on personality types, personal history, humor and speech interaction. Plantec gives an overview into these topics, providing broad insight into the subjects themselves, and not only as they relate to V-people. To simulate real intelligence, which is the overriding goal, one must have some understanding of actual human intelligence.

Plantec likes the fact that a V-person, properly scripted with dialogue, a back story and facial expressions ” much like a movie character ” can provide good company. He notes that he had a thoroughly enjoyable 45-minute conversation a few days ago with ALICE (Artificial Linguistic Computer Entity), a virtual human created by Dr. Richard Wallace, and that Sylvie continually surprises him with her wit. But Plantec is not interested in giving V-persons a personality simply for our entertainment. He believes that V-persons are going the play a huge role in the lives of flesh-and-blood humans. Giving them humanlike characteristics will make it easier for people to accept and embrace that role.

Plantec sees a future, measured in years rather than centuries, where V-people will handle the vast majority of our technical needs. And the technological world will be infinitely more complex and important than it is even now. User manuals may still exist, but they will be so staggering in volume and technical talk, they will be all but unusable. (Besides, Plantec likes to note, who ever reads a technical manual?) Thus, our reliance on virtual humans will be enormous.

“In 15 years, technology will be so complex, we’ll all need [virtual humans],” said Plantec, who will make an appearance at Explore Booksellers today, Jan. 30, at 7 p.m. “I’m technically knowledgeable, and I only figure out 10 to 15 percent of what my cell phone can do.

“Virtual humans form the perfect interface between the technically disenfranchised ” the thousands of people who have never gotten on the Internet ” and the world of technology. We’re into the steep part of the evolutionary curve. The curve is much steeper now than 10 years ago, and it’s going to get a thousand times steeper. We’re going to need help catching up.”

Plantec sees particular use for V-people in the field of education. It was working as a teacher in the mid-1970s when he first began to see the possibilities of virtual humans. Plantec was using primitive computers as an aid to teaching autistic children, and he marveled at the way the students responded to the computers.

Since then, Plantec has become further convinced that V-teachers can be an improvement over humans. Students, he says, tend to trust the virtual versions, knowing that they have no agenda other than to teach, and play no favorites. Virtual teachers can be updated with information much more readily than their human counterparts. And they can assess and evaluate a student’s performance instantaneously, largely eliminating the need for testing. (What kid wouldn’t love that?)

Plantec understands that there are risks associated with virtual humans. However, the standard fear of V-creatures that run amok, turn evil and betray their creators is not among his fears.

“The big concerns that people have is that these will get loose in the world and become our enemy. Because that’s what sci-fi writers write about,” said Plantec, a contributing editor and columnist for Producer magazine, a consultant to companies developing virtual human applications, and the author of “Caligari trueSpace 2 Bible,” highly respected in the world of 3-D animators. “But they don’t have an evil bone in their body.”

Because people will learn to trust virtual humans, they will make themselves vulnerable. Plantec has included a chapter in “Virtual Humans” on the ethics of the applications.

“Humans can be damned evil, and this can be a powerful tool,” said Plantec who, thanks to the early success of his latest book, is devoting most of his time to promotional efforts. “And people have a strong tendency to trust these things. We think they have no ulterior motive. Big corporations can use them to invade people’s privacy. People will trust virtual humans more than real humans, and I think big corporations can exploit that.”

Still, Plantec believes that V-persons are capable of far more good than mischief. In any event, they will be a necessity in the near future. And so much the better if they can provide their masters with a few laughs and good conversation.

“The virtual human can teach you what you need, what’s available,” he said. “They can hold your hand across the knowledge divide. Because they’re good at the technological and they’re good at the human side.”

For more information on Peter Plantec, go to http://www.v-people.com.


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