Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: CES 2020: The Big Trends for Business

Neon captures CES 2020 buzz with artificial humans, may help reinvent the future of work

Neon is a business play with enterprise use cases that makes the idea of the digital workforce a bit more real.

A peek at Neon, the artificial humanoid created by Samsung

Neon, a startup funded by Samsung's research arm, has developed "artificial humans," creeped out more than a few people, landed much of the buzz out of CES 2020, but more importantly may be the missing piece in redefining work.

Depending on what you read out of CES 2020, Neon is either just another avatar or as CNET notes "a computationally created virtual being that looks and behaves like a real human." These computational beings, built on a platform called Core R3, will reportedly show emotions and intelligence. 

Also: Artificial humans? Samsung Labs' Neon project has a lot of hype to live up to

Neon isn't a next-gen digital assistant, but more like your digital twin with its own personality over time. Neon's artificial humans are more like video chat bots that can learn from experiences and be unique.

Let's get real. Neon has pulled the hype levers better than any startup in recent memory. The comical part is that Neon is a Samsung Technology and Advanced Research Labs-backed firm. Yes, the same company that hatched the beleaguered Bixby digital assistant has captured the imagination of CES 2020. That irony alone deserves a round of applause.

And if I'm to place any wagers, I'd likely bet that Neon is more Second Life than a chance at everlasting digital work life for you. Neon appears to be able to produce a replica of you and potentially learn from your behavior.

We'll leave the social implications, privacy and all those other cultural items to others. I see Neon as a business play with enterprise use cases that makes the idea of the digital workforce a bit more real.

Yes, Neon may be that last piece in redefining work.

neon-virtual-beings.png

And the digital workforce just got a bit more real. Credit: Neon via CNET

Here's what's already happening as work goes virtual and more digital.

Most of these developments are pretty far along. In other words, the workforce band has been put together already. The band was only missing the lead singer. That lead singer is likely to resemble what Neon just cooked up.

Humans need something artificial that can pretend to have empathy, behave like them and interact. We'll be creeped out for a bit, but then go along for the ride. Like a lead singer, Neon's virtual beings will work the crowd. Someone else -- my guess is Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Google and IBM -- will write the lyrics in the background.

The point is Neon's advance is that its virtual beings are more realistic than Amazon Sumerian's hosts. Therefore, people will interact with Neon beings more and work will get done.

Can Neon really pull it off?

In a word: No. In two words: Hell no. Neon is the equivalent of those early e-ink companies at CES back in the day. The best demo doesn't exactly win in the long run. Remember, Microsoft had a slate PC years before Apple's iPad.

Yet, Neon is on to something. Neon's human-ish chat bots will have real use cases in the following areas:

  • Retail. For the three of you that dig physical retail, Neon virtual beings can be handy in various departments.
  • Tourism and travel. These virtual beings may make great customer reps in the field. They'll also stick to that empathy thing compared to real humans that'll muddle under their breath that the customer isn't right but an idiot.
  • Collaboration. Would you rather talk to an avatar or something that looks like a real human? Enough said.
  • Health care. How many elderly folks will go virtual just to have someone around?

These Neon folks will only need a brain and that'll be provided by sensors, AI, enterprise software and cloud giants. There are enough parts in place already to iterate on Neon's digital humans for business. Neon has created a mimic engine not a brain. The money in reinventing work is likely to revolve around the brain not a picture-perfect virtual being.