The Rise of the Virtual Being

For many of us, the pandemic means we’re living increasing portions of our lives through screens: working, Zooming, streaming, gaming, connecting. That last part—connecting—is in some ways the most challenging. Spend enough time on screens, and even the real live humans we’re interacting with can start to feel like avatars. So what happens, in the future, when the people we’re chatting with actually are avatars? And what if that future is now?

On the latest episode of the Get WIRED podcast, writer Emma Grey Ellis explores this emerging world of virtual beings. Ellis recently attended the Virtual Beings Summit, where artificial intelligence companies assembled (remotely, of course) to demo their newest creations. And during the episode we hear directly from Lucy, a new virtual being from Fable Studio—though to hear her talk, you might think Lucy was a “real” fourth-grader.

Some virtual beings are hugely popular. A virtual Japanese pop star has become so beloved that nearly 4,000 fans have “married” her. The US has its own entirely virtual influencer: Lil Miquela, who currently has 2.5 million Instagram followers. Her career path has followed the familiar arc of human influencers, starting with lucrative advertising deals, followed by a little bit of controversy and, naturally, an album dropped on Spotify. The sex industry has also pivoted to virtual beings—which raises questions about both the ethics and the economics of never-aging, programmable lovers.

The presence of virtual beings on our screens, in our timelines, and in our lives seems inevitable at this point. But before dismissing their rise as proof of a dystopian present, consider this: We are already talking to computers all day, in different ways. And communicating with each other, human-to-human, is complicated, too. Virtual beings might not be adequate replacements for real human interaction, but they still might be able to teach us something about our humanity.

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