Slaves that are reflections of ourselves
Liesl Capper says she was 'almost shocked' that users treated robots like real people and that they would spend up to 20 minutes talking to them. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
Talking to Liesl Capper, you may be forgiven for feeling like you have been thrust smack-bang into the middle of a science fiction flick. Companion robots, virtual humans serving as customer support slaves, and the ''perfect-boyfriend'' avatar who lights up your day by sending texts to your smartphone.
Capper's company, MyCyberTwin, builds what she describes as ''software brains'' - conversational robots that companies can use to handle customer queries on their websites. National Australia Bank became the first major client four years ago, deploying a virtual female assistant on its internet banking - a friendly onscreen service tool advising customers with computer-generated responses. Companies such as computer maker Hewlett Packard and global consulting firm Accenture have followed suit.
People seem to hate talking to automated telephone lines and often bemoan a lack of personal service from companies. But Capper - who has degrees in psychology and education - claims they are happy to engage with her human-like customer-support robots.
Seven years since its inception, her business now has offices in Sydney and New York. It's eyeing Silicon Valley to target the mass consumer market with virtual personal assistants you can put on your Facebook page or smartphone to manage your life, act as a fitness coach - or simply entertain you when you're bored. And a small-business version will be available soon, offering online workers that can be created in a couple of hours.
''The idea is that anyone should be able to have a virtual staff member, a human-like slave, on their website, whether you're a plumber, a small bank, or whatever,'' Capper says.
Capper, who says she fell in love with computers reading Isaac Asimov novels when she was 12 and programmed her first game a year later, started working on a business concept around artificial intelligence after she left her previous start-up, search-engine company Mooter Media, when it was listed on the stock exchange in 2005.
''I thought people were going to do more of their social interaction on the internet, and they were probably going to use chat and voice a lot more,'' she explains. The business appeal of virtual staff members seemed obvious, attending to customers 24 hours a day without demanding a single pay cheque. So, why weren't such chat-robots everywhere already?
The technology available at the time Capper found was too clunky to create convincing human-like interaction, and too expensive to be recreated on a large scale. So, with co-founder John Zakos, a PhD in intelligent web technology who had helped develop Mooter, she spent three years working on MyCyberTwin. Using personal funds as well as $2.8 million in government grants and private investor money, they built a platform offering templates of chat-robots with a choice of personality styles and digital brains that enabled them to hold chats by analysing conversation patterns, the context and the profile of the person they were dealing with. Most of those conversations are done via messaging, but some high-end versions for big enterprises use speech engines.
Apple's launch of its intelligent personal iPhone assistant Siri last year proved a game changer, making businesses and consumers more open to the concept, Capper says. ''Before Siri came along, we were quite an eccentric area. Siri made the whole thing mainstream for us.''
Today, the company, which is 80 per cent owned by its founders and staff, generates 85 per cent of its sales in the US and has doubled its overall revenue every six months since early last year to several million dollars. After the expensive start-up years, it is now turning a profit.
Having analysed thousands of MyCyberTwin chats and created virtual perfect boyfriends and perfect girlfriends for ACP Magazines a few years back, Capper says the psychologist in her was ''almost shocked'' about how willing users were to treat robots like real people.
''When we put these characters out, the average human being will spend 20 minutes in a conversation, and they will keep coming back and form a relationship,'' she says.
Diving into the mass consumer market, Capper is looking to list her business on the Australian Securities Exchange next year, and is looking at a possible dual listing in the US further down the track. She expects the consumer market will drive its market valuation, predicting that in a decade ''15 to 20 per cent of human interaction'' could be with people-robots.
Top tips for aspiring entrepreneurs
Liesl Capper grew up in Zimbabwe and emigrated to Australia in 1997 in her late Twenties. Having grown up in a civil war society without a safety net, ‘‘you sort of feel that you have to construct your own reality and you have to do it very proactively,’’ she says.
Her three tips for budding entrepreneurs:
- Embrace the idea that reality is a construct, a figment of human imagination, and you have the power to modify the world quite significantly. Have a clear picture of exactly how big is your company going to be, what is your revenue going to be, how are you going to be looked at as a business person, and then believe it as if it’s real. If you are powerful enough in that the world has no choice but to come along to your vision of reality.
- Watch and learn to avoid self-delusion. Having said that, you have to be very clear-minded about what the market is saying, where things are going. I spend a lot of time look at the bigger picture, social trends and that kind of thing. We often get too caught up in doing operational stuff, and forget to give ourselves that kind of time. Carve that time out and put it in your diary. I will give one fifth of my time to reading and thinking, and talking to people who read and think, and that protects you from self-delusion.
- Have passion and love your work. Customers are not somebody you exploit but they’re somebody you love.