As conversational AI becomes mainstream, the opportunity to recreate and embody historical icons becomes a possibility. Our CEO and Founder, Danny Tomsett, discusses why this could be an incredibly important milestone for AI, what makes it possible today and what the near future could look like – through the lens of UneeQ’s latest project, Digital Einstein.

Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation may remember an episode where Lieutenant Barclay needed some expert advice on “quantum electro-dynamic calculations.” Naturally, who else would he want to consult but Albert Einstein? Or at least a holographic form of perhaps the smartest man who ever lived, run by the ship’s artificial intelligence (AI).

Life imitates art, as they say. And for the past few months, we’ve been looking at recreating Albert Einstein using today’s AI technology.

While we don’t have the USS Enterprise powering Digital Einstein, we were able to call on some of the best technologies and innovators in the field of conversational AI to make sure Digital Einstein looked, sounded and felt like it might do talking to the real thing.

I guess the first question readers may have is why we did it. We’ve seen a growing body of research into what AI can do when it’s embodied by a digital human. Some of this relates to customer experience; but some examples show promise in the form of educational engagement, AI companionship and even how healthcare is delivered.

First of all, how do you do it?

This year marks 100 years since Albert Einstein (the real one) won the Nobel Prize for Physics.

His digital twin is an exploratory project that we hope positively impacts some pretty big modern-age problems. He was designed to provide an educational experience, for free, to anyone in the world. You can take a daily quiz, ask him about his life or pose him a science question.

For the tech-heads out there, I’ll explain a little about what technologies Digital Einstein uses. He runs on our digital human platform, a cloud CGI platform, with an AI fabric that drives autonomous behaviour and dynamic UX. Simply put, it allows people to have real-time, face-to-face conversation like a normal video call.

Digital Einstein’s speech and tone was recreated by Aflorithmic. Using AI voice synthesis, his voice generates in real time to perform unscripted responses based on the conversation flow.

Goodbye Kansas Studios contributed to his visual appearance, meaning he can show emotions through facial animation. Meanwhile, WolframAlpha gives him “computational intelligence” so he can answer a broad range of science questions.

And finally, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (an institution Albert Einstein founded and lectured at) made sure Digital Einstein “felt” close to an interaction with the real person, with the help of Greenlight, masters of icon representation.

Why recreate historical figures at all?

Star Trek fans might have asked a similar question. After all, Lt. Barclay could have just simulated a voice from the ship’s hyper-intelligent AI and used it like a form of Alexa. Why did he choose to interact with an embodied Einstein?

Digital Einstein was created to experiment with the idea that humanizing the interface of AI can have a number of positive impacts.

In fact, there’s increasingly more research into what effect “humanized” AI technologies can have in areas like education, healthcare and society in general.

For instance, research from the University at Buffalo around an avatar called Kevin shows promise in what conversational AI can offer to education. Leading the project, Dr Richard Lamb, says the use of an AI can make education and training resources more easily accessible.

People also interact differently with AI, as the University of Southern California discovered with their virtual therapist, Ellie. In the study, returning veterans who undertook a health assessment disclosed more to Ellie than they did to real people or even on anonymous surveys, helping researchers better identify signs of PTSD. Patients didn’t worry that Ellie might judge them.

I think we can all remember a time in school when we didn’t understand something and wanted to ask someone, but were too afraid to put our hand up for fear of sounding silly and losing the respect of our peers. It’s our hope that people might turn to AI educators to learn without the same concern.

Lastly, we looked at trends of people forming a bond with machines. As “Black Mirror” as it sounds, companion robots are on a growth path that could make the market worth $51.5 billion by 2030. Software companions, it must be said, take away the cost barrier posed by robotics while providing that emotional support.

So, can AI replicate Albert Einstein?

The launch of Digital Einstein brings the opportunity to research his impact on all of the above. But to answer this question, albeit rather opaquely — AI can replicate characters like Einstein… to some extent.

The limits of science-fiction are many times broader than the limits of today’s reality.

No AI in the world today could replicate the great man’s creativity. You couldn’t stand at a blackboard, like Lt. Barclay in Next Generation and work on a breakthrough in theoretical physics. But for those of us who aren’t spaceship lieutenants with an IQ of 1,450, there’s a lot we can learn from simpler experiences.

For one, using the mass amounts of data from WolframAlpha makes it possible to get accurate answers to a range of scientific questions. Digital Einstein hosts a daily quiz, to make learning new things a little more engaging — he might even rib you if you get an easy answer wrong, so the experience isn’t necessarily robotic. We can also learn more about the great man’s life by simply asking him, encouraging new generations to discover the significance of these historical icons for years to come.

So while technology can’t yet allow us to simulate his creativity and IQ (his backend) we can start to simulate some of his EQ (his frontend) — the famous personality that has made him an enduring icon in science, popular culture and history.

One day we may be able to solve string theory with an AI Einstein. Or unearth philosophical mysteries with AI Plato. Or write songs with Virtual John Lennon. Mankind is not there yet, but there are plenty of problems that can be eased today.