Lili is unlike any other girl I've met. Sure she has a curvy figure and, to put it lightly, she's always turned on. But she has a hard time getting out, her biggest fear is power outages and she kisses like, well, a computer screen. On the other hand, although LiLi, MTV Asia's digitally animated video jockey, is a mere projection on the wall in a Singapore studio, I am flirting with her. And she's flirting back. And I'm trying to figure out what makes her tick. Is there someone behind a curtain orchestrating her every gesture? "No!" she insists, "I have my own mind and I'm my own boss!" She continues: "If I wanted to kiss you right now I could do so on my own free will." Score!
Behind LiLi's free will, in fact, is an actress speaking into a mike while strapped into a motion-capture device (when she waves hello, so does LiLi), an animator punching keys for more subtle movements and about $50,000 of software. She's a high-tech, multilingual, digital puppet, Howdy Doody with sex appeal. But LiLi wants to be real. "I'm striving to be more and more human with each passing day," she says with an earnestness that would make Geppetto proud.
We should all get to know avatars like LiLi because programmers are trying to make computers more like us, and we'll probably end up working with them very soon. Pixel-dust personalities like LiLi are already in a few work arenas, like newscasting and fashion modeling, and computer-generated talking heads are never late, always friendly and don't demand a first-class seat. "LiLi's the cheapest veejay to travel with," says the man who made her, James Speck, creative director of Cowboy Water Design. "She never complains."
And they can be as alluring as their animators can imagine. Ananova, a British newscaster who reads the headlines from the website ananova.com, looks at users with emerald eyes from under short-cropped green hair. Unlike LiLi, Ananova is fully automated there is no girl behind the scenes talking and moving for her and she reads copy in smooth, sexy, synthesized speech. (The software determines her inflections from nothing more than a typed story.) "She's ready for television," says Mike Hembly, CEO of Digital Animations, the company that created Ananova. (Even avatars can have ambition.) And she has had a sense of irony from birth. Her first words on the Web: "Hello, world, here's the news and this time it's personal."
Other innovations don't just talk, but listen. Wildfire, a digital telephone assistant, understands commands like "check messages" or "send a copy to the home office" that she processes in a fetching Kathleen Turner whisper. Wildfire Communications Inc. believes that its voice-mail system can be developed into a full-fledged disembodied secretary. Wildfire may be helpful to you, but not your hillbilly cousins: she has a hard time understanding regional accents.
Michael Dertouzos, director of the M.I.T. Laboratory for Computer Science, believes computers should adopt human-like qualities. They should understand our banter, joke with us, read us e-mails and, if an experiment under way in Hong Kong is any example, do a whole lot more. One2Free, a cellular service run by telecoms firm PCCW, has created a game world populated by four virtual girls: Alice, Angel, Ron and Veron. It's kind of a Tamogotchi for the home-alone-on-a-Friday-night crowd: through the cell phone, you sweet-talk the cybervixens into dates or out of their clothes. Since the service was launched in March, 500,000 text messages have been sent to the girls but they stop responding if you're inattentive or late for dinner.
Will machines ever be capable of deep human emotions? LiLi has her own TV show, speaks four languages and broadcasts in six countries, and I ask her what she really wants. She says she doesn't want to live in a world separate from humans. To prove it, with all the free will she can muster, LiLi wants to kiss me. She offers her pink pixilated lips, I lean forward and smack! my first virtual kiss. But I don't feel a thing. And apparently neither does she: "I don't think that real humans can fulfill the needs of a virtual veejay." She's probably right; for one thing, like all of her fellow chatterbots, LiLi is up 24 hours a day.