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: