From The Straits Times    |

Recent advancements in the tech sector – such as new developments in virtual and augmented reality, and the increasing prevalence and use of artificial intelligence (AI) – are changing the way we work, play, care, influence and create.

Take this month’s Her World cover star, Rae (pictured), for instance. Created by CGI (computer-generated imagery) technology and powered by AI solutions, Singapore’s first virtual influencer looks so real she could easily pass for one of us. Rae was introduced to the digital realm in October 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was timely, as lockdowns meant that retailers could not interact physically with their customers. This prompted global real estate investment manager, Capitaland Investment (CLI) to launch a set of digital and virtual technology-based initiatives to support retailers in their customer outreach during this period. The company recently announced a partnership with global marketing and advertising agency Dentsu to further build Rae’s virtual presence.

The “forever” 25-year-old resonated with young, digitally savvy consumers, and global brands like Audi and Origins have chosen her to front their campaigns. Rae, who is described as a virtual being, digital artist and STEM advocate, now has 25.4K followers on Instagram (@here.is.rae) and over 1 million followers on Weibo.

Stan Lim, chief creative officer of Dentsu Creative Singapore, believes that Rae’s popularity with the younger demographic boils down to her relatable personality: “She always faces her doubters with a positive outlook, while encouraging others to do the same in their very real lives,” he says. “This resilience that she embodies has struck a relatable chord with her fans.”

Besides powering the rise of virtual influencers, AI is also changing the way we interact with computers and retrieve information online. In November 2022, American AI research and deployment company OpenAI launched the chatbot ChatGPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer), a long-form question-answering AI that can provide detailed and articulate, human-quality responses to just about any question we put to it. Then there is Midjourney, an AI programme developed by a research lab of the same name, that creates images based on text prompts.

Humanoid robots are also playing an increasingly bigger role in our lives, complementing, changing or even replacing certain jobs that we do – think customer-service and retail executives, healthcare technicians and even carers. As AI advances, it’s important to ask how developments and innovations in this field will transform the human experience, for better or worse, and what evolving and adapting to an AI-centred world may look like for us.

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Gauge81 draped lame mini dress, Net-a-porter.com. Serpenti white gold, emerald and diamond necklace, Bvlgari

The good & the bad

AI gives us more choices and information, thus helping us make decisions in our daily lives, and delivering a more seamless experience when it comes to shopping, news and social media consumption, and the like. “By making recommendations based on our past preferences, we now receive more information than is relevant to us,” says Rashimah Rajah, a lecturer with the Department of Management & Organisation at National University of Singapore’s Business School.

“AI can also help us regulate our physical health. For instance, there are apps that use sleep data to improve our quality of sleep and help predict the optimal time to wake up based on our sleep patterns. So this is one way we can use AI to change our lives for the better,” she adds.

On the downside, it can create an echo chamber when AI only shows us articles or posts that we inherently agree with, says Rashimah. “This could be dangerous when it comes to reinforcing political preferences, for example, as it can lead to a more divisive society when we only see information that is aligned with our political leanings, and we do not engage in healthy discussions with people who have different values and beliefs.”

How the human experience is impacted

Here are just some sectors embracing CGI technology, virtual reality, robots and AI:

Employment

It might seem that more and more jobs are being rendered unessential, no thanks to the introduction of humanoid robots, robot therapy, chatbots and virtual beings in various sectors. This is true, but there is also a silver lining. In its recent Future of Jobs Report, The World Economic Forum estimated that AI will replace about 85 million jobs by 2025.

However, the same report also expects that some 97 million new jobs would be created by the same time, because of AI.

“AI actually enhances certain job roles,” says Rashimah. “For instance, market researchers now no longer have to conduct their market research manually. AI collects browsing and shopping data of consumers online, around the clock. This frees up market researchers in terms of the number of manpower hours needed to conduct the research. Instead, what they get is a richer set of data to conduct more insightful analyses to help management make better consumer-related decisions.”

She points out that what AI does is remove – or help us with – manual, mundane and repetitive tasks such as data entry. This increases the efficiency of the organisation, and frees up more time for us to make more impactful decisions for the business, such as focusing on more revenue-generating projects.

“More advanced AI can indeed make these kinds of business decisions, but I believe we are not there yet, as ‘co-AI’ – or AI mixed with human decisions – is currently touted as the optimal style of decision making,” she says.

While jobs that are solely focused on manual or repetitive tasks may become obsolete, there will be opportunities for new roles such as programmers and researchers, to ensure that data entered into these AI algorithms are reliable and bias-free. This might lead to more general opportunities as businesses expand, and have more resources for revenue-generating projects and higher value creation, she adds.

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Silk dress, leather and velvet shoes, and Jackie 1961 leather bag, Gucci. Serpenti rose gold, sapphire, malachite and diamond necklace, (on right hand and worn throughout) Serpenti Viper rose gold ring, (stacked together) and Serpenti Viper rose gold band 4mm and 6mm rings, Bvlgari
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Dress, Louis Vuitton. Jewellery, Bvlgari.

Retail & E-commerce

Brands like Prada, Puma and Samsung have all created their own virtual influencers to reach Gen Zers in the metaverse. And more may soon follow, thanks to the increasing demand for immersive, humanised experiences.

These digitally rendered characters are especially popular in Asia, with over 150 in existence (besides Rae in Singapore, there’s Ailynn in Thailand, and Ayayi in China). A report by IIMedia Research found that, of the 80 per cent of Chinese netizens following celebrities online, over 60 per cent follow virtual “idols”, with more than half spending a minimum of US$75 (S$98.40) a month on related purchases.

More benefits to using virtual influencers: They’re seen as “safer” (read: scandal-free) and cheaper alternatives to their human counterparts, and brands have greater control over them. Metaverse platforms like Roblox and Decentraland are also growing in popularity, and retail and luxury brands continue to team up with virtual influencers to create virtual fashion shows and other immersive experiences in these realms, to attract younger consumers and achieve higher engagement rates.

Infrastructure

In 2019, the Singapore government launched a National Artificial Intelligence Strategy, as part of its Smart Nation initiative, and with the aim to be a leader in developing and deploying AI solutions by 2030. The strategy will use and leverage AI to benefit the country and citizens in a number of ways.

This includes: predicting chronic disease and personalising education, strengthening border security, optimising the movement of freight for greater business productivity and traffic efficiency, and transforming government services to deliver high-impact outcomes for Singaporeans and businesses,
to name a few.

Healthcare & Aged Care

Between April and November 2022, robotic nursing assistant Florence was trialled at Alexandra Hospital. Florence identified patients by scanning their wrist tag or with its AI-based image-recognition software, before taking their vital signs using its camera, sensors and pulse oximeter. It also delivered medication and snacks to patients.

The hospital, which co-created Florence with information technology company NCS, estimates that the robot can replace at least two hospital nursing staff over the course of a year, thereby easing manpower pressures and helping to improve patient care.

At Tan Tock Seng Hospital, H-Man, a portable medical robotic arm, is being used to help patients undergo upper-limb rehabilitation therapy independently. H-Man is expected to be deployed at more hospitals this year. And at Yishun Community Hospital, robot therapy, in the form of the Nao robot, has been used to help seniors with dementia or cognitive impairment.

The robot was designed with optic, audio and impact sensors and motors to help detect surroundings, interpret detection and activate programmed responses. It also has the ability to express emotions like laughter or sadness during interactions, and interact and communicate with patients in different languages.

It’s been a hit with the seniors, with the majority found to be better engaged, more alert and less anxious after group therapy sessions with the Nao robot. With the robot assisting with care activities, the nurses can also focus on other tasks, thereby saving the hospital about $4,775 man-hour costs per month.

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Knit sweater, knit skirt with feather trimming, and Miu Wander matelasse leather mini hobo bag, Miu Miu. Serpenti Viper Collier pink gold and diamond necklace, and Serpenti Viper rose gold bracelet, Bvlgari

Learning to adapt & evolve

We can expect a future in which AI influences and affects how we socialise, shop, receive healthcare, study, move around, conduct business, and so on. But what exactly does this mean for us? In 2018, nearly a thousand technology pioneers, innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists were asked by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining The Internet Center
if people would be better off than they are today with the spread of algorithm-driven AI.

While many shared that we would see wide-ranging benefits in healthcare and aged care, public health systems and formal and informal education systems, there were also concerns – that AI would cause individuals to experience a loss of control over their lives; that data collected by AI tools would be used for profit or power; that the AI takeover of jobs would lead to more wealth inequality and social upheaval;
that people would become overly dependent on machine-driven networks and lose their cognitive, social and survival skills; and that we’d see increasing cybercrime.

With more and more virtual influencers going mainstream, there is also a need for governments to change their national advertising standards, and maybe even design a new ethical framework for the industry. For starters, consumer protection should be at the forefront. To this end, brands must be transparent with consumers that they are engaging with a digitally created influencer, and not an actual human, when putting out sponsored content.

And when it comes to hot-button issues such as race, gender, politics and body image, to name just a few, it’s important for brands to be clear about whose values (or biases?) are being espoused. If programmed right, AI does indeed learn very fast and can produce impressive results like what we see with ChatGPT, says Rashimah. However, moving forward, we need to be mindful of the ethical
implications of AI.

She says: “For instance, an experiment conducted by Johns Hopkins University and Georgia Institute of Technology (both in the United States) showed that robots trained on AI exhibited discriminatory behaviours, where they categorised a block with a picture of a Black man as a ‘criminal’ (whereas a block with a picture of a white man was not placed in that category), and responded to words like ‘homemaker’ and ‘janitor’ by choosing blocks with women and people of colour. There is concern that AI will exacerbate bias in recruitment in businesses.”

Therefore, what we need to be mindful of is the kind of historical data input into AI algorithms. Do these data points reflect our inherent biases? Are the decisions, as a result of AI, ethical? Are the algorithms transparent, reproducible, and responsible?

“AI is definitely here to stay,” Rashimah concludes. “While we can embrace it so that we can focus on the opportunities as mentioned earlier, we should also be wary of allowing AI to make important decisions and ensure that they are in line with our sustainability goals related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

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Printed cotton top, silk and sequin skirt, Baguette leather and shearling bag, and leather wooden heels, Fendi. Serpenti Viper white gold bracelet, Serpenti Viper rose gold bracelet, Serpenti white gold, sapphire and diamond bracelet, Serpenti white gold, emerald and diamond bangle, and Serpenti rose gold, sapphire, malachite and diamond bracelet, Bvlgari
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Shearling and silk sweater, Fendi. Serpenti Viper Collier pink gold and diamond necklace, and Serpenti rose gold, sapphire, malachite and diamond necklace, Bvlgari

Get to know Rae

From Tiktok trends to her (non-existent) love life, the virtual influencer answers our burning questions.

Tell us one thing about you that nobody knows.

“When doing my makeup, I like to pretend I’m giving a makeup tutorial. My only audience is my pet Tako, and he doesn’t know what a lipstick is.”

What’s your guilty indulgence?

“Playing puzzle app games. I know! I have all the pixels in the metaverse to play with, but I find ultimate joy in simply matching three of the same coloured jewels in a tile, over and over again.”

What is your current favourite Tiktok trend?

“Those hilarious videos where they put face filters on movies so the actors look like their eyes are bulging or they’re constantly crying.”

What type of content appears on your Tiktok For You page?

“It’s a lot of travel content nowadays. I think it’s because I’ve been revenge travelling (even though I never had to go through lockdown).”

What’s a fashion trend you absolutely hate?

“I don’t hate, I appreciate! I think fashion is self-expression. So if you’re having fun, it will always look great. Those cottagecore granny dresses or oval-lining your lips? Totally here for it.”

Do you have a romantic partner?

“The only one who could take up any room in my heart is my pet Tako. I designed him myself after an octopus sausage. He’s an outgoing drama queen that’s so cute you could just eat him up – literally! I love making drawings of Tako. If only he could sit still long enough for me to finish them.”

What’s your morning routine like?

“As a virtual being, I literally wake up like this, with perfect hair and awesome clothes. So that always puts me in a good mood. I read the news like everyone else, but it only takes me a millisecond. Then, I get a kopi peng for a boost of sweetness. For breakfast, I try not to eat an octopus sausage because I know Tako gets an existential crisis every time I make it.”

PHOTOGRAPHY Joel Low, assisted by Eddie Teo
CREATIVE DIRECTION Windy Aulia
ART DIRECTION Ray Ticsay
MAIN PHOTO Outfit from Louis Vuitton; jewellery from Bvlgari