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Posted: May 06, 2013

The futurist: Downloading a personality

Data? Rosie? WALL-E?

Thomas Frey

Fifteen years ago in an article I wrote for The Futurist Magazine, I made the prediction that once we had talking computers, we would soon have downloadable personalities to create a more human-like experience. I went on to suggest that most of us would actually download multiple personalities so we could interact with the right persona at any given moment.

Machine-like voices tend to grate on us after while, and the notion that the heartless pile of equipment we currently spend our days with could somehow be magically transformed into a warm and engaging human-like organism is rather alluring. Many of us would like to see that happen.

However, an interactive voice is only a small part of the “personality” equation. 

As we’ve seen from some of the early entrants in this space, most notable the smartphone duo of Siri and Robin, current technology leaves much to be desired. A few inquiries into a test run and you’ll find that most responses totally miss-the-mark.

Most GPS systems allow users to change the voice of their commands. But like Siri and Robin, these are one-dimensional voice-only manifestations of a personality, lacking the emotional queues, non-verbal expressions, and the intellectual prowess to answer anything more than a common factoid. 

Human-like personalities are hard to define, and since we don’t have any good examples of them, no one has any sense as to the needs or desires of a personality marketplace. 

For this reason I’d like to take you on a journey into the unchartered territory of downloadable personalities. 

History of Artificial Personalities

The art and science behind replicating human personalities has evolved dramatically over time. Here are a few of the key innovators driving the “science of personality” forward.

1.) Walt Disney – Pioneer of Artificial Personalities

In 1937, the Walt Disney Studios released its first fully animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and pioneered animation as a new form of entertainment. 

Yes, there were artists depicting figures in motion as early as the Paleolithic cave paintings thousands of years ago, and some of Leonardo da Vinci sketches in 1510 showed sequential motion in the human body. 

Many different devices paved the way for animation in the motion picture industry, including the magic lantern in 1650, the Thaumatrope in 1824, the Phenakistoscope in 1831, the Zoetrope in 1834, and the flip book in 1868. One of the first motion picture animations was a short called “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” by Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton in 1908 

Even though there were eight animated films that came earlier, it was Disney’s Snow White in 1937 that pushed the bar for animation dramatically higher with amazing attention to detail and characters that exuded their own personality. 

2.) Teddy Ruxpin – The Personality Bear from 1985

One children’s toy that was way ahead of its time was Teddy Ruxpin, an animatronic talking teddy bear produced in 1985 by Worlds of Wonder

The bear moved his mouth and eyes while ‘reading’ stories which were played on a cassette tape player built into his back. The design team included Ken Forsse, Larry Larsen, and John Davies. Later versions used a digital cartridge in place of the cassette. At his peak, Teddy Ruxpin was the best-selling toy in both 1985 and 1986.

3.) Jim Henson – Master of Puppet Personalities

In 1955, fledgling puppeteer Jim Henson launched the Muppets, a puppet-based TV show that would soon become world famous. At the heart of his emerging puppeteering empire was his fixation on character personalities.

Believing that television puppets needed to have “life and sensitivity,” Henson began making characters from flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber, allowing them to express a wider array of emotions at a time when many puppets were made of carved wood.

4.) Robot Personalities

When it comes to imagining what king of personality would best fit a robot, we see quite an evolution over the years:

  • Rosie (The Jetsons, 1962)
  • Lost in Space robot (“DANGER, Will Robinson!” 1965)
  • C-3PO, R2-D2 (Star Wars, 1977)
  • KITT (Knight Rider 1982)
  • Data (StarTrek, 1987)
  • Optimus Prime (Transformers, 1987)
  • Sonny (iRobot, 2004)
  • WALL-E – (Disney Film WALL-E, 2008) 

Even though I’ve only mentions a few of the thousands of robots in TV, movies, radio, and literature, you can sense the radically different approaches used to instill a personality into these machines.

Mr. Personality Editor Software

WowWee is Hong Kong-based company launched by Richard and Peter Yanofsky that focuses on “breakthrough consumer technologies.” They are best known for their biomorphic robot RoboSapien. 

In 2009, they released a homebrew editing software that allowed users to edit the personality files on their Mr. Personality Robots™.

With its programmable modules, Mr. Personality™ redefined the term “personal” robot because users could architect whatever personality they desired. Designed as a fully animated and interactive talking companion, it exudes personality in everything it says and does. Like a cartoon character morphed into 3D, he can tell jokes, read your daily fortune, and even answer questions about your future. 

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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