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Meet the AI startup that wants to make a digital copy of every person in the world

Published Dec 30th, 2017 12:35PM EST
Image: Oleksiy Maksymenko/imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

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“Oben,” in German means “above,” or to be on top. That, in a nutshell, is also the vision Nikhil Jain has for the AI startup ObEN, of which he’s CEO and co-founder. The company raised $5 million from a group led by Tencent this summer and has an ambition in keeping with the meaning of its name.

Nikhil is working to advance technology that gives ultimately everyone in the world — the famous, the infamous, the ordinary and everyone in between — a 3D avatar that looks and sounds like them. ObEN, in that scenario, would power an AI level that sits, in other words, “above” physical, face-to-face interactions, opening up a new way of interacting with technology. And each other.

“We believe every person in the world will eventually have their own copy,” Jain told BGR. “One that looks like them, talks like them — it’s not that far off. An AI-driven virtual copy that can be used by consumers like us in day-to-day applications. For example, my AI — my copy — can now sing better than me.”

All ObEN needs to do that is a selfie of you and a voice recording. Here’s a YouTube clip showing Nikhil on one side, and his ObEN-made virtual copy on the other:

From fake news, to fake me. That’s apparently where we’re headed in 2018, with ventures like ObEN and others that BGR has covered this year — like Canadian tech startup Lyrebird — that use voice- and face-copying to present a version of me saying whatever I want. Or a version of, well, someone else, saying almost anything I want.

Lyrebird, BGR noted earlier this year, requires you to give it about a minute of your speech. The program then analyzes your voice and reverse-engineers it into computerized vocals that can be made to say anything — and to sound exactly like you would if you were the one saying instead of a computer.

ObEN, which has raised $21.7 million, takes things even farther.

The company, which reportedly plans to launch celebrity avatars in 2018, was founded in 2014. Nikhil sees it as a wildly futuristic idea that nonetheless has plenty of practical application, starting with himself. He travels a lot for work, for example, and some kind of virtual AI copy of himself could be used to interact with his kids so they didn’t end up missing him as much.

This news has been on the more positive and useful end of the spectrum of AI news we’ve covered in 2017, a spectrum that includes Elon Musk continuing to try to scare us to death about AI on the other extreme. We’ve covered startups like Nauto, based in Palo Alto, that uses cameras and an AI system to help monitor drivers to improve performance and safety, and just this month VR pioneer Jaron Lanier told us he didn’t even think AI as such is really, well, a thing.

Nikhil and the folks at ObEN, of course, sees it as plenty useful. And people are buying into their story. This summer, tech giant Tencent led a $5 million funding round into the company. Levin Yao, executive director of Tencent Investment, described the new form of entertainment and celebrity AI-driven content ObEN is working to build as “inspiring.”

Also this year, ObEN announced the formation of AI Stars, a joint ventures with S.M. Entertainment, one of the largest entertainment companies in Asia with a portfolio of celebrities including K-pop stars. That new joint venture will use ObEN’s technology to deliver new products and services that merge technology and celebrity intellectual property. According to the publication Tech in Asia, ObEN is also working with Bollywood celebrities.

“Celebrities want to be connecting with their fans,” Jain said. “Once we have their avatar, we can give it instructions. OK, avatar, we want you to now sing this song.”

Avatars, in a sense, also enable the person they’re copying to live forever, Jain continued. How to get his company to its end goal of every person having their own virtual 3D representation — that’s the futuristic goal at least one startup found itself wrestling with as 2017 draws to a close.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.