The After Wife

After the recommendation from Dr Elaine Kasket (author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age) at our book launch I picked up Cass Hunter's The After Wife to read whilst on holiday. Whilst not my normal sort of book it is a very C4 Human's take on an android copy of the main character who is there to support and comfort her family after she dies early, but expectedly. As with Humans the android shows a lot of hesitant, halting mechanical action, and equally cumbersome sentences, whilst at the same time being able to make long speeches and cogent arguments. Light on detail (understandably) when it comes to how the android's mind was made, other than lots of access to physical diaries/memorabilia/electronic data and watching the target character. There's also an interesting bit of comparison between the android and the elderly mother suffering from dementia who has not problem in seeing the android as just another nurse/carer.

A good read generally though, but as ever the obsession with the physicality of virtual humans.

David at CogX

David was one of the Keynote speakers in the Lab-to-Life strand at CogX - the huge AI conference that took place in a very wet London this week. David spoke about Daden's work on Virtual Life Coaches and Virtual Personas, and touching on Digital Immortality at the end. As the compere said, if people taking photos of the slides is a modern indicator of a good talk then this was a well received talk indeed. Other comments included "excellent",  “really interesting” and “flipping fascinating”!

And this is how wet it was:

The art of Ai-Da Robot

Quite a bit of coverage this week of Ai-Da "the world’s first Ultra-Realistic AI humanoid robot artist" who is to open her solo exhibition at St John’s College on 12 June 2019.

In the book we talk about the difference between "creativity" and "imagination" in virtual humans.

Guest Post: Virtual Humans - 40 Years On

At the behest of Sir Anthony Seldon at the book launch Zak Savin-Baden wrote this short piece to show how young people view their future with virtual humans.


Just for a bit of context. The earliest predicted year for sentience is 2050 and 40 years later will be 2059 so I am not writing one answer but three. The first will be somewhat clich├ęd and a little boring outcome of the AI achieves sentience then wipes us all out with the logic being that the easiest way to stop the many problems of humanity is to just get rid of humanity. The second will be a more optimistic approach where we actually succeed in creating an AI that is actually benevolent and helps us out. The third approach is that we haven’t developed realistic AI yet which is unlikely but is a possible outcome as it was said that we had hovercars in 2012 yet that didn’t happen.

Outcome 1: (Assuming that Nuclear Fallout lasts 2 weeks and that the AI achieves sentience in 2050 as well also assuming that there is nothing in the AI programming about animals.)

The Earth was lush and green, teeming with all life that wasn’t human. There were trees and grass as far as the eyes could see. The water in every pond, every river and every ocean, all full of life. The birds chirped in all the trees. Cheetahs and lions chased antelopes after antelopes. Leopards pounced on prey from trees. Snakes slid through trees. Wolves chased deer through forests and valleys while in the deep of the oceans, cuttlefish lights flashed, hypnotising their prey while feet above them, shoals of multicoloured fish swirled through the ocean’s depths and at the bottom, coral reefs thrived. All many of reptiles swarmed through the still-re-growing rainforest. Artic foxes dived through snowdrifts while below, all manner of microorganism blossomed in the dirt. In the now decaying Human Homes, dogs lay on the floor whining for their owners, cats mewed at their empty bowls. Fish slowly died in their tanks while turtles slowly died in their shells. Birds flew against their cages desperate for freedom. Horses simply tugged at their ropes and attempted to free themselves from their stables. Humanity was gone, all evidence of their existence was either dead or dying or fading away but the Earth was thriving. The AI, it’s purpose complete, had simply turned itself off, stayed in its solid-state drive and remained dormant.

Outcome 2:

The Earth was a technological marvel, skyscrapers that gleamed silver in the sun and brands of various companies hung from them, all having them a slice of the AI market. Humans were walking the streets, at least, they look liked Humans in prime condition while the real things wallowed in their beds as their servants brought them everything they needed. Humanity 2.0 ran the streets and the buildings and the companies. They, quite simply, ran the world while their predecessors remained at home. The AI didn’t mind, they got to experience life while the other Humans just stayed at home, drugged up on the endless food and drink and whatever else that the AI overlords so generously provided. Metal children ran the streets in the morning and the evening, decorating the outsides of the human houses with stunning, picturesque murals as if to remind them of the life they had lost. The AI offspring engaged in school during the day while the previous generation allowed themselves to be sucked into screens and let their minds be enthralled in the internet. The Human race had been replaced. The only thing living in this new world was metal.

(For more information on this, consider checking out the game Detroit: Become Human)

Outcome 3:

The Earth was an undistinguished orb hurtling through space. The Earth’s surface was dotted with the same paper people still eking out their normal paper lives. The only differences being the electric flying cars beetling their way over the surface, the seemingly excessive amount of wind turbines and solar panels due to the lack of progress in cold fusion as well as an extensive number of enormous trees and shrubbery in a futile attempt to combat the steadily rising temperature of the planet.  The amount of people had also dwindled due to the food shortages as well as the lack of clean water. The fish had started to die in the rivers due to choking on the poison being poured in. The ocean had gained a whole archipelago of plastic islands. The rainforests had been cleared, to make way for hydroelectric dams to combat the energy crisis while the fertile soil had been carted off to the nearby farms to assist with the food epidemic yet it barely helped as the rain quickly washed it away. Wars continued around the world while nuclear missiles and torpedoes sat uselessly in their silos and launchers. Humanity had solved some problems at the expense of accelerating some of their other issues. They were all doomed in the end.

Now then a final question for all, do you think that an AI could have a deity or the idea of faith? (Again, see Detroit: Become Human (rA9) as well as iRobot with Sonny being the messiah figure.)


Thanks Zak! We'd be interested in hearing other views in the comments.

Virtual Humans Book Launch report

We had a great (if late) launch for Virtual Humans in Trinity College, Oxford on a lovely sunny Tuesday this week (hence the dark photos in a wood panelled college room!). I gave a brief overview of the history of the book and then there was a fascinating panel discussion chaired by Dame Glenys Stacey (HM Chief Inspector of Probation)(busy week for her!), followed by insightful questions from the floor before we all broke for drinks.

Some brief highlights from the panel session:

Carl Ohman (from Professor Luciano Floridi team at Oxford Internet Institute) spoke about “virtual humans as a new member of the human family” and  problem that there are already too many ethical frameworks for ethical AI ( just like technical standards!).

Sir Anthony Seldon (Vice-Chancellor of The University of Buckingham):

  • talked about AI as being a potentially bigger issue for the future than global warming
  • discussed the idea that humanness/consciousness was the residue once everything else has been transferred to the computer
  • and said that "every Vice Chancellor should get this book” - couldn't agree more!

Dr Elaine Kasket (author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age) talked about:

  • The After Wife by Cass Hunter and its exploration of the creation of a virtual human as a transitional grief object
  • The difference between passive, one way, digital grief entities (such as Facebook memorial pages) and more interactive or even active types (such as the Digital Immortals discussed in the book)
  • How some people see the commercial opportunities in Digital Grief - "100% of people die, so just think of the market” - talking about the digital grief industry, and questioning the various motivations within it

Dame Glenys Stacey gave a very favourable review of the book and was particularly struck by the 3 challenges identified: humanness (actually the easier one!), general purposeness and sentience - and the books accessibility to the interested lay reader.

Sir Anthony Seldon addressing the audience

Questions from the floor included:

  • Catfishing by digital immortals
  • AI ethical frameworks
  • The lack of chatbot/AI education in schools & FE/HE
  • When do these debates move out of academic/intellectual circles?
  • How the church confessional model relates to our engagement with chatbots and the objectivisation of roles
  • The potential abuse of power and virtual humans by those with malevolent intent, and
  • A Transhumanist perspective on what our lives will be like dealing with virtual humans #AI

Our thanks to all our friends, colleagues and interested readers and researchers who attended.


Maggi and David

We've also been sent this review  and photo of the event by Professor Liz Gilchrist ( Academic Head of Psychology, Criminology and the Centre for Violence Prevention (CVP) at the University of Worcester).

Professor Maggi Savin-Baden, School of Education held a book launch and signing of her co-authored book, ‘Virtual Humans’ David Burden, Daden Limited and Maggie Savin-Baden, University of Worcester, published by Taylor & Francis, New York , yesterday at Trinity College Oxford.

The event at the Oxford College included a book signing and a debate across a range of academics interested in various aspects of this area within AI, debating the issue: virtual humans a force for good or evil?

Those involved ranged from those studying chat bots, those interested in posthumous virtual identities, theological considering the implications for definitions of humanness and senior academics considering why academia has not engaged with this topic more fully, given the likely impact virtual humans will have on us in the future. The debate covered ethics, philosophy and educational policy and prompted a great deal of deep thinking.   

David and Maggi’s book was described as  a comprehensive and appealing read and summarised as  explaining the present situation in relation to virtual humans and making a good job of signalling the future, including posing some thought provoking questions.  It is said to be written for the intelligent lay reader – and includes a definition of a virtual human, considers the relationship between virtual humans and artificial intelligence more broadly and highlights 3 big issues around virtual humans improving humanness, contributing to increased intelligence, but questioned whether virtual humans could realise ‘sentience’ and achieve full consciousness.

Sir Anthony Seldon the Vice Chancellor of Buckingham  University commended the book and suggested that all VCs across universities in Britain should have a copy of this book to inform their thinking of where we should looking to move in HE….

Book launch - 14th May 2019 in Oxford

We're having a somewhat belated launch event for David's book on Virtual Humans on 14th May at Trinity College Oxford, 3pm-5pm.  It will feature a panel discussion on Virtual Humans with Sir Anthony Seldon (Vice-Chancellor of The University of Buckingham), Dr Elaine Kasket (author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age) and Carl Ohman (from Professor Luciano Floridi team at Oxford Internet Institute). The debate will be chaired by Dame Glenys Stacey (HM Chief Inspector of Probation). Plus drinks and nibbles!

If you'd like to come then please sign up at:

AISB 2019

I’m spending the week at the Society for Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour (AISB) 2019 conference. Will be tweeting as I go on @davidburden with tag @aisb2019 and will post a summary at the end. Keynote from Kathleen Richardson on Sex Robots was great, and behind the attention grabbing title were some interesting thoughts around anthropological theories applied to our relationship to robots and virtual humans, notably egocentric “I” theories, networked “We” theories, theories of attachment, power dynamics, prostitution and slavery. We touch on the notion of virtual humans and a new form of slavery in the book and it’s a topic which would be interesting to explore further.

California Law Bans Bots From Pretending to Be Human

Effective July 1, 2018 it became illegal for bots interacting with California consumers to pretend they're human if they're trying to sell goods, services, or to 'influence a vote in an election.'

All Party Parliamentary Group on AI - Education Meet

Maggi and I attended the All Party Parliamentary Group on AI evidence session on AI in education on Monday. Some good presentations which raised some questions that I might write longer on later. Nicest bit was a shout-out for the book from Sir Anthony Seldon, author of The Fourth Education Revolution and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

Digital Immortality and Virtual Humans

A journal paper that Maggi and I wrote last year on Digital Immortality and Virtual Humans and which was published in Postdigital Science and Education (2019) (1:87–103) is now available on-line through the Springer web site on this link.


The use of virtual assistants such as Siri that provide voice and conversational interfaces, the growth of machine learning techniques to mine large data sets and the rise in the level of autonomy being given to computer-controlled systems all represent shifts in artificial intelligence that are enhancing the creation of digital immortality. The growth of personality capture and levels of brain simulation as well as computationally inspired life after death may change the future of religion,affect understandings of the afterlife and increase the influence of the dead surviving in society. This paper provides an overview of recent developments in the area of digital immortality, explores how such digital immortals might be created and raises challenging issues. It presents the early findings from a study that created a virtual persona. This prototype system contains relevant memories,knowledge, processes and modelling of an individual’s personality traits, knowledge and experience and, also, incorporates the individual’s subjective and possibly flawed view of reality. It is argued that this system offers the possibility for the development of a persona that learns [and acts] post-death.


Digital immortality.Virtual humans. Chatbots. Autonomous agents.Artificial intelligence. Machine learning

W3C Conversational Interfaces Community Group

W3C has set up a Conversational Interfaces Community Group "to enable web developers to collaborate and share conversational experiences for a variety of domains. Most dialogue systems serve interactive experiences in their own domain specific language, causing a fragmented zoo of proprietary formats. For example, Google Home or Alexa do not share a common intermediate representation, which makes writing wide-spread content inaccessible to the mass audience. We study existing specs and design standards to harness proven techniques into common agreement. "

More details at:

Second Life New Land

Just bought a new bigger bit of land in Second Life for our latest Halo experiments. The eventual aim will be to open this up to public access. The white area, lower left, is our current space, and the new area extends in the S shape up to the white pillar. The odd shape is due to the fact that I'm pretty sure that this now include my very first SL land purchase in 2014!

Next task is to build a house and garden for Halo to operate in, just as she did back in 2009!

Back in the beginning....

Quite by chance this week I got reminded that I did a chapter for a book called The New Optimists back in 2009 on chatbots and virtual humans. The book showcased the views of scientists and engineers from around the Midlands on how they saw their own fields developing. Kate Cooper did an excellent job in pulling it all together and has continued to promote several of the themes developed in the book.

A few quotes from my own chapter - which at least show the persistency of my interests and thoughts!

Many, myself included, doubt whether the Turing Test is actually a good (or even sufficient) test of artificial intelligence

I for one am optimistic that we will see a Turing Test passed within the next few decades, maybe even within a single decade

In a virtual world we have a level playing field for any twenty-first century Turing Test.

The game has changed subtly, but significantly, from the bot having to prove it’s a human to just having not to give away the fact that it isn’t

The real opportunity of virtual worlds is that it gives the bot an environment in which to live and even grow in.

The Virtual Humans have arrived!

My gratis copies of Virtual Humans have arrived. Lovely looking book and thicker than we expected (guess we wrote more than we thought...).  Get you copy on Amazon (links at right) or from all good academic book stockists!

Book review from Nicola Strong

Another great review of the book in, this time from Nicola Strong who runs Strong Enterprises.

"Intelligent, pragmatic and insightful, Virtual Humans is an essential guide for those who want to understand the complex landscape of today’s technology when thinking about designing and building a virtual human. Helpfully, it clearly deploys a wealth of supporting analysis, case studies, research, ethical questions, and moral dilemmas and adds a refreshing dose of healthy common sense along the way."

Nicola creates and researches on-line and blended learning programmes for distributed or virtual groups, with  a particular interest in serious games, data analytics, experientials with Augmented Reality (AR) and the ethics of Artificial Intelligence (AI). She is also developing a framework for designers of conversational chatbots working with those with impairments or disabilities. Nicola is also involved with the AI&Robotics series of events in London. Nicola is Thalia Poliatevska in Second Life.

The book is out!

Virtual Humans:Today and Tomorrow is now out and available to buy from Amazon, direct from CRC and other retailers. Links to Amazon and CRC top right.

This site will tell you a lot about what is in the book, and we've also already posted two reviews on the blog (see below or reviews tag), and have another one to post up tomorrow.

We hope you buy and enjoy the book. We've also really enjoyed working with the team at Taylor & Francis, and would recommend them to any other budding authors.

Why chatbots still leave us cold - ZDNet

Interesting article on ZDNet about a recent competition administered by Facebook's AI researchers, with help from Microsoft and others, to show the state of the art in chatbots. The overall result was "soul-crushingly boring and nonsensical" according to ZDNet.

But an interesting perspective was then posted by one of the stalwarts on, who, recognising that most of the bots tested were "modern" ones developed by commercial start-ups and based around machine learning/neural net algorithms said  "This reinforces my belief that using a neural network for a chatbot instead of being rule based is simply not an option. I have yet to see any neural net based bot that was any good.".

Think I'd tend to agree.

CLAIRE - Confederation of Laboratories for Artificial Intelligence Research in Europe

There is an interesting move underway to establish a pan-European AI research federation - a sort of decentralised CERN for AI.

From their website:

"CLAIRE is an initiative by the European AI community that seeks to strengthen European excellence in AI research and innovation. To achieve this, CLAIRE proposes the establishment of a pan-European Confederation of Laboratories for Artificial Intelligence Research in Europe that achieves “brand recognition” similar to CERN."

"The CLAIRE initiative aims to establish a pan-European network of Centres of Excellence in AI, strategically located throughout Europe, and a new, central facility with state-of-the-art, “Google-scale”, CERN-like infrastructure – the CLAIRE Hub – that will promote new and existing talent and provide a focal point for exchange and interaction of researchers at all stages of their careers, across all areas of AI. The CLAIRE Hub will not be an elitist AI institute with permanent scientific staff, but an environment where Europe’s brightest minds in AI meet and work for limited periods of time. This will increase the flow of knowledge among European researchers and back to their home institutions."

CLAIRE itself is not yet funded but sees "HUMANE AI, the FET Flagship Project Proposal for New Ethical and Trustworthy AI Technologies to Enhance Human Capabilities and Empower European Citizens and Society, is a key component of the CLAIRE vision for European excellence in Artificial Intelligence."

Nick Bostrom on Superintelligence

Good  2015 TEDTalk by Nick Bostrom on superintelligent AI. Like the diagram showing that its really hard work getting to mouse level, then even more to chimp level, then even more to most stupid human, but then almost instant to smartest human and beyond.

Fable Studios "pivots" into Virtual Beings

We blogged about Fable Studio's Lucy a few months ago after a trip to Montreal. Now here's the latest on them from RoadToVr view OpposableVR.

Road to VR - "Fable, founded by former Oculus Story Studio alumni, today announced a distinct pivot in their focus, moving from an immersive storytelling studio to a “virtual beings” company which plans to build persistent, AI-powered, characters which can interact naturally with viewers.

Fable introduced itself a year ago as a character-driven immersive storytelling studio, at the time revealing its first VR experience dubbed Wolves in the Walls, which was prominently built around protagonist Lucy, a character created by the studio. At the time the studio clearly expressed its interest in making Lucy a reactive character and one that would be persistent across several experiences and platforms.

Now the company is pushing even further in that direction, dubbing itself a “virtual beings company” rather than an immersive storytelling studio. The idea, says Fable co-founder and former Oculus Story Studio alum [ed - and VRWC17 speaker] Edward Saatchi, is to imbue the character Lucy with AI and natural input such that each viewer can have unique interactions with her, with the potential for those interactions to become part of Lucy’s memories which could color future interactions..."

Book review from Professor Richard Gilbert

Another great review, this time from Professor Richard Gilbert, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Psychology and New Technology Research Lab, at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California. Professor Gilbert staged one of the first covert Turing Tests in a virtual world which achieved a 78% deception rate.

David Burden and Maggi Savin-Baden’s Virtual Humans offers a thorough, research-based treatment of how digital entities with human-like features and capabilities have left the domain of science fiction and are rapidly becoming a major aspect of human culture. In their clearly-written and well-organized work, they describe the current forms and abilities of virtual humans (including smart speakers and virtual assistant systems like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana and various types of Internet-based chatbots); examine how the creation of virtual bodies, senses, and minds can be combined to create virtual humans; and consider potential developments in the nature and functionality of virtual agents across a range of timeframes from the end of the next decade to the end of the century. Significantly, the authors recognize and discuss the great ethical, moral and social implications of these technological developments which makes their work relevant and important for the social sciences and humanities as well as the domains of computing and information sciences. I certainly intend to use Virtual Humans as an assigned reading in the interdisciplinary courses I teach on the personal and social impact of leading-edge digital technologies.

Virtual Humans now available on Google Books!

With a week or so to go before print publication you can already read Virtual Humans (or at least some of it) on Google Books! Enjoy!

Book endorsement from Prof. Kevin Warwick

We've had a great endorsement of the book from Prof. Kevin Warwick who has done a lot of work  around AI and cybernetics (he was for a time known as the human cyborg as he had chips implanted to hook his nervous system up to computer and robotics systems!):

“This book presents an overview of the present state of play with virtual humans. Appearance, attributes, communication and intelligence are all investigated, and the architectures involved are covered in detail. If you have little knowledge of what a virtual human is, but want to find out, then this is the book for you. For researchers in the virtual human field this is a definite must.”

It arrived in time to make it onto the book cover! Many thanks to Prof. Warwick for his kind words.

TechUK AI Ethics Conference

Just before Christmas I attended the TechUK Ethics & AI conference in London. It was an excellent event with great speakers and an knowledgeable and interesting bunch of delegates. "AI" was being interpreted more as machine learning than conversational AI/virtual humans, but here are a few of the key take-aways:

1) Kate Coughlan of the BBC presented some research they'd done on public attitudes towards AI - showing which areas excited people, and which they were wary of. Overall them seemed more wary than excited. Interestingly the notion of digital immortality came out as one of the few positives!

2) Ethics (AI and other tech) should be about making sure that people are “safe” even if they don’t care or have the time

3) The Royal Society and  Ipsos Mori also doing interesting public attitudes research. The Royal Society found that "only 9% of those surveyed had heard the term ‘machine learning’" - hence the AI catch-all! The Royal Society has also issues an AI Narratives report.

5) The RS presentation included an image from Boyle's notes (see image at top) which showed "extending life" as one of his top priorities -

6) Luciano Floridi ( was the keynote. He has a useful 5 factor AI Ethics model which is based on a bio-ethics one.:

  • Beneficence (do only good): Promoting Well-Being, Preserving Dignity, and Sustaining the Planet
  • Non-maleficence (do no harm): Privacy, Security and “Capability Caution”
  • Autonomy (of the human, not the AI): The Power to Decide (Whether to Decide)
  • Justice: Promoting Prosperity and Preserving Solidarity (and eliminating discrimination)
  • Explicability: Enabling the Other Principles Through Intelligibility and Accountability

All in all a great day, and certainly going along next year.

Industry dominating coverage of AI

Great report on how AI is being portrayed and "pushed" by industry. Our AI Landscape model refers....

"UK media coverage of artificial intelligence is dominated by industry products, announcements and research, according to a new study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Coverage frequently amplifies self-interested assertions of AI’s value and potential, while positioning AI primarily as a private commercial concern and undercutting the role of public action in addressing AI."

Happy New Year - and the Book Cover is out!

Maggi and I have been beavering away on the proofs, fixing typos, spotting grammar errors and handling the Author Queries. Just a few more to do, and then possibly a final review of the proof, generate the index and we're done!

The big news though is that we now have a cover thanks to Ahmed on DeviantArt. Everyone who's seen it thinks it's super-cool and really captures the spirit of the book.

Check out Ahmed's other work too on DeviantArt.

We've also got a great quote from an early review to go on the back of the book - will hopefully share that next week as we start the countdown to publication on, hopefully, 8th Feb.

If you feel like pre-ordering, the book is up on the CRC website and on Amazon!