Dr Jordan Nguyen is an author, engineer, inventor, TV documentary presenter and founder CEO of Psykinetic, a social business pushing the limits of inclusive technology to achieve bold human ambitions. Following the success of his TEDxSydney talk in 2016, he has just launched his first book A Human’s Guide to the Future – about the past, present and his predicted futures of science and technology, and how humanity can thrive throughout the rapidly changing times in which we live.
From robotics to artificial intelligence to biomedical technology to extended reality, Jordan is passionate about the many transformational technological tools that we can harness as humans to build seemingly impossible new solutions – including avatar technology, featured in his TEDxSydney talk, Technology is Reinventing Humanity. In his book, Jordan describes how in 2014, ‘A massively impactful idea…just hit me like a freight train.’ He realised that it was now possible to capture his mother, and other loved ones, in video, to in some ways ‘immortalise’ them for future generations to know – and even have an interactive conversation with. Jordan’s grandfather Richard passed away when he was just one year old, and in this conversation with his mother he realises that if he had footage of his grandfather, an interactive avatar would have been possible:
I pause again and find myself staring down as I gather these thoughts. ‘So. If this had existed then and I’d been able to create a virtual copy of Grandpa, I would want it. I’d love to be able to go into the virtual world and talk with him. See his face and his gestures and mannerisms, hear his voice and just . . . be there with him. It would be like a modern version of visiting someone’s grave and sharing stories with them. How would you feel if that were possible?’
Mum starts tearing up now. Responding is clearly very difficult for her. ‘I’m not sure how I feel about it. I think I would definitely want that for you and future generations in the family . . . to know Dad. But I wouldn’t want it for me. Because . . . I’d be reliving the loss over and over.’
For a moment I feel horrible for even coming up with this idea. It breaks my heart to see my mother upset. Then I remember something I’ve come to know all too well. That if we let fear get in the way, be it fear of failure, fear of how people may respond, or fear of not living up to the expectations we set ourselves, then we’ll never explore or discover anything. Instead, I believe we can take on board the thoughts of the people around us and incorporate their responses in planning and creation. Knowing that this particular design could provoke an adverse reaction means that I should approach the idea with caution. While the application of technology to create a digital avatar of my grandfather could have a negative – even traumatic – effect on Mum, it could also have a positive – even beautiful – effect on me, my siblings and future generations in our family. This is why we must approach all bold steps with respect and conscious design.
From here Jordan would go on to invest in a Sydney-based startup called Humense to work on developing the technology to make avatars a reality. After interest from organiser Edwina Throsby in featuring this technology in his TEDxSydney 2016 talk, Jordan formed a collaboration between Psykinetic and Humense to bring a virtual avatar of himself onto the TEDxSydney stage at the Sydney Opera House.
But it wasn’t easy. The week leading up to the talk was an intense time of designing, building, programming and problem-solving. Even once he was on the main stage, Jordan wasn’t entirely sure it would all work. He also had to overcome a fundamental challenge discovered while designing for this talk with his teams: how to differentiate when a person is describing what is in the real world and what is in the virtual world. In written form, Jordan created and introduced a new conceptual framework called ‘virtualitalics’, where grey italics is used whenever referring to what is happening in the virtual world:
I get to the point in the talk where I’m going to introduce the demo we have so far, of our first 3D volumetric video capture of me as an avatar in VR [virtual reality]. I walk over, talking about the collaboration between my Psykinetic team and Humense, as a video montage illustrates the work that has gone into this over the past week. I have a growing feeling of uncertainty as I take each step over to where the VR set-up is located. Nick hands me the headset and controllers. I close my eyes, slip the headset over my face and hold my breath for a moment. Upon opening my eyes, the first thing I see is the glowing virtual stage without a roof, and a starry night sky above. It works!! But can the audience see what I’m seeing?
They could indeed, sharing in the excitement as Jordan came face to face with himself on the virtual stage. This avatar of Jordan was not quite a video game character (what he classifies as Class I) nor an avatar that start with a download of one’s consciousness and continues to evolve with artificial intelligence (Class IV) – which something Jordan describes as being a bit Black Mirror. This avatar belonged in a space he likes to work in – Class III, which he calls ‘spatiotemporal avatars’ – a capture of a person in space and time. This is where he finds potential for higher empathy and connection.
Jordan’s talk, successfully showcased early Class III avatar technology, which he has further developed since 2016. Through Psykinetic, Jordan is now working on making the tech available to anyone wanting to preserve their loved ones in space and time by making virtual avatars. These adventures, among many others in A Human’s Guide to the Future, give readers a glimpse of the exciting superhuman era we’re rapidly moving in to, and the imaginative possibilities our collective future may hold.
A Human’s Guide to the Future by Dr Jordan Nguyen is published by Pan Macmillan, RRP $34.99 and available at all major retailers