01 April 2021

    Anthea Kemp

    The Future of Friendship

    A technological innovation called NEON is reinventing human interaction.

    For most of us, making friends as an adult isn’t easy. A recent survey, conducted for American social-planning website Evite, showed that 45% of people over 30 had not made a new friend in five years. The reasons for this, as cited by the respondents, were mostly shyness and introversion. But there are a host of other barriers to new friendships as well. Most people have established social circles by their early 20s, the same poll reported, and many people find it difficult to break into these circles. And, with work and family commitments taking up most of your disposable “adulting” time, it’s common for new friendships, which take time, to slip down the list of priorities. At the same time, 45% of people surveyed said they would be willing to go out of their way to make new friends.

    A new technological innovation called NEON sets out to fix this, but not, as you would expect, by making it easier to make human friends in real life. Instead, by 2022 NEON will deliver on-demand friendship administered by highly intelligent digital beings.

    NEON is the name of the San Francisco- and Seoul-based company that is pioneering a new form of highly sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) that can be substituted for humans in a variety of applications. 

    NEON is also the name of a species of AI characters that closely approximate real human beings. NEONs look and sound identical to people, and through ground-breaking machine learning, they behave and interact a lot like people too. They’re more than bots, and they’re more than avatars. In fact, the company goes so far as to call them “artificial humans”.

    NEON first showcased an early prototype of its “computationally created virtual being” at CES 2020, the world’s leading exhibition platform for new and prototype technology. Just one year after debut, the company has started beta testing through partnerships with businesses in South Korea, the company’s home base.

    Shinhan Bank in South Korea now uses NEONs as its primary customer service interface, using proprietary hardware called NEON View, an interactive screen that displays the NEON as a full-body, life-size, physically and verbally responsive person. NEONs can also be used in digital content creation, as Korean media conglomerate CJ discovered when it began to substitute NEONs for human actors and models in several of its projects.

    What we’re really eager to see, though, is how successful NEON will be as a virtual companion. Through an app called My NEON, personalised NEONs will be available for “use” via our mobile devices. In a total reinvention of the chatbot, NEONs will be able to talk with us responsively, face-to-digital-face, via voice call, or text, in a way that’s almost indistinguishable from human-to-human interaction. This all seems a lot less scary than taking up salsa dancing in the hope of copping dinner party invites, but time will tell whether virtual friendship is as satisfying and rewarding as the real thing.

    Anthea Kemp