Meet VeeMe: The Virtual Agent Programmed to Think Like Me

11/29/12Follow @dnordfors

Meet VeeMe, my “virtual me” that acts like me and reacts like me. I’ve written about him/me before (here and here).

If you think VeeMe sounds creepy, I agree! But I think it will happen. I both fear it and hope for it. So far, the information revolution has consistently performed beyond our imaginations. Twenty years ago people had difficulty grasping that the Internet could be bigger than the telephone system, that everybody in the world would have a cell phone, that there would be cyberwars.

What will make VeeMe happen is mobile, the cloud, big data and social networking.

The mobile revolution means that everything I do is about to be recorded. The cloud revolution means that all that data is going to be accessible together with the data created by others. The big data revolution means that it will be possible to data-mine the information I and others create, finding correlations between the things I do, or between my actions and the actions of others. The social networking revolution means that it will be possible to figure out who influences whom about what.

When all our actions are recorded and analyzed, it seems like a grand challenge, but not an impossible task, to build systems of VeeMes—software that simulates the actions and reactions of people—to mimic the recorded interaction between people.

Let’s say all our interactions of all people get recorded in the cloud. It’s not an unrealistic assumption—just wait until most people on earth have a smartphone, only a few years from now. Now imagine you create a system of AI agents, VeeMes, one for each person. Assume you manage to train this system of VeeMes so that their interaction mimics the interaction between the corresponding people. Well, then you have just created a model system of both people and society. Think of the power in that!

VeeMe will be built from all the collected data about me: my e-mails, social network data, credit card data, health data, tax data, phone calls, location data, and so on. I will also draw on contextual data that can explain why I do the things I do. If it’s raining cats and dogs I’ll probably want to rent a Zipcar instead of going by bike. So VeeMe should collect weather, news stories and more.

To create VeeMe, I index and analyze all my data, and create a model that can simulate my behaviors. I use a mixture of techniques, such as data mining, language analysis, social network analysis, artificial intelligence and so on. I have stored millions of complex stimuli-response patterns, now I am training VeeMe to replicate them.

In this way VeeMe gradually learns to behave like me. And the learning doesn’t stop once VeeMe is created. I let VeeMe join me in everything I do. So my virtual me will become more like me by the day. He grows and develops with me.

I can ask VeeMe about things I have difficultiy remembering. I can ask for “my own” advice. VeeMe will suggest what I would do in a given situation. VeeMe has a perfect memory (perhaps this can help me to avoid repeating mistakes). It can also help me to better understand important events in my life, to resolve conflicts, and so on. It’s so often we forget the details of what people said or, thinking they said something else. Our memories are colored.

Let’s say everybody gets a VeeMe in the future, just like everybody previously got a computer and now is getting a smartphone. Then it gets really interesting. Imagine VeeMes talking to one another. If my VeeMe and your VeeMe like each other, you and I might want to meet in “real” life! The interaction between different VeeMes can be a way of pre-screening information and social contacts.

VeeMe is an advanced digital identity. But these identities don’t need to be limited to people—communities, companies, anything with a character that interacts and creates data can have a VeeMe that simulates their character and behavior. So VeeMes are good not only as digital assistants, for screening offers, or as matchmakers for friendship and dating—they can be good for many other purposes, too.

In today’s innovation economy jobs are changing so fast that our educational and employment services can’t keep up. Schools and universities are teaching skills that are different from what the job market wants. It’s a challenge for HR to hire enough entrepreneurial, talented people to do the new things CEOs want. Most recruiters search for a good professional bio that fits a job slot. They hardly know how to look for talent instead of proven skills, or how to break down barriers instead of fitting slots.

One way to try to solve this is to switch the traditional employment service for a dating-like service. Rather than looking for a “programmer,” for a company would look for someone who has a mix of desired skills and talents, and who has a personality that fits the organization. Today we would do this by adding psychometric tests and interviews to the standard personal bio. In the future, the company can create a “VeeJob” digital identity that can meet with my VeeMe. If they get on together, it may be worth the time for the company to invite me to an in-person conversation.

VeeMe is about privacy, too. There is a lot of data about me in the cloud and in various databases. Some players, like Google and Facebook, I trust with a large amount of data about myself. They earn money by using the data I provide them to match me with offers from vendors. If I search for “Volvo” in Google, they will sell my attention to car dealers who want to reach people interested in Volvo. In Facebook, advertising is directed by personal profiles.

Privacy laws are bound to go on getting tighter. At the same time, companies have a constantly growing business incentive to know as much as possible about me in order to construct their own models of me, to use for marketing or behavioral targeting.

VeeMe is the best virtual copy of myself, and it is in my own control. VeeMe should be attractive to marketers, who can test their offers on VeeMe, to see if this is something I may like and might want to take a closer look at. If VeeMe likes it, I will look at it. I might even earn a few dollars on selling marketers access to my VeeMe. Google or Facebook and I might have a joint business interest: they provide the smart communication infrastructure and I provide a simulacrum of myself—probably using tools provided by the these companies, and probably storing VeeMe in their clouds. If all people had VeeMes, it could boost the efficiency of the economy, since everybody would be wasting less time on bugging each other.

The database inside VeeMe is mine—it contains my private information. If I own a VeeMe, it can also be easier to guard that information. The company hosting my VeeMe might have an incentive to see to that there are no “unofficial” (or even “pirate”) VeeMes out there.

Marketers and others don’t get to copy that database, they just get to interact with it. They provide stimuli and VeeMe provides responses. There will be big business in building and maintaining VeeMes. I need excellent security and privacy services—I can’t afford to get my VeeMe stolen or hacked. VeeMe will most certainly be living in the cloud.

I don’t know how long it will take until VeeMe becomes as real as you and me. But the storage and other technologies are coming together; Big Data is accumulating rapidly; we are seeing the arrival of virtual assistants, like Siri, Google Assistant, or MyCyberTwin. We may see a whole ecosystem emerging, probably with the companies presiding over Big Data at the core. That may mean Google, Facebook, or new players that manage to acquire control over access to the data about us.

It’s going to be a new economy, and there will be giant stakes: huge business potential, new ways of doing work and performing transactions, a new realm of ethics and public policy—everything from privacy and security to entirely new problems we can’t imagine today

You and I might think that VeeMe sounds much too spooky for anyone to want to have one. To tell you the truth, it sounds quite scary to me. But I think we will change our minds, step by step, as our digital assistants get better and better at mimicking our behaviors. If our VeeMes are useful, they will make us competitive, and then market forces will push us even more towards cloning ourselves in order to increase our capacities.

David Nordfors is the president of IIIJ Innovation and Communication. Follow @dnordfors

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  • Celia Cortner

    I find this a little spooky, but absolutely fascinating. The more I read and then checked out the MyCyberTwin site, I get it. This could be amazingly freeing for us as both individuals and in the workforce. I especially can see the benefit of application to workforce recruitment and even development.