Kazutaka Yonekura dreams of a world where everyone will have their very own digital “clone” – an online avatar that could take over some of our work and daily tasks, such as appearing in Zoom meetings for us.
Yonekura, CEO of Tokyo startup Alt Inc., believes it could make our lives easier and more efficient.
His company is developing a digital double, an animated image that looks and speaks exactly like its owner. For example, the digital clone can be used by a recruiter to conduct preliminary interviews or by a doctor to screen patients before check-ups.
“It frees you from all the routine[tasks]that you have to do tomorrow, the day after, and the day after,” he told The Associated Press as he performed his double – a miniature video image of Yonekura on the computer screen, with a synthesized version of his voice .
When his digital clone is asked “What kind of music do you like?” he pauses for a few seconds and then elaborates on Yonekura’s fondness for high-energy rhythmic music like hip-hop or rock ‘n’ roll.
A bit mechanical maybe – but all social blunders were programmed out.
Yonekura, 46, argues the technology is more personal than Siri, ChatGPT or Google AI. “Most importantly, it belongs to you and not the tech company that created it,” he said.
Right now it’s expensive to have a digital double. Each alt clone costs around 20 million yen ($140,000), so it’s likely to take some time before there’s a clone for everyone.
When creating a digital double, information about an individual is siphoned off social media sites and publicly available records in a massive data collection effort and stored in the software. The data is constantly updated and adapts to the changing habits and preferences of the owner.
Yonekura believes that a digital clone could pave the way for a society where people can focus on their creativity and waste less time on tedious interactions.
For many Japanese — the nation that gave the world Pokémon, karaoke, Hello Kitty, and emojis — the digital clone is as friendly as a cartoon character.
However, Yonekura acknowledges that cultures differ and that Westerners may not like the idea of a digital clone that much.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, why does it have to be a personal clone and not just a digital agent?” he said, a note of desperation in his voice.
Yonekura’s company has mostly attracted more than 6 billion yen (US$40 million) in domestic investment, including venture capital funds from major Japanese banks, while developing collaborative relationships with higher education institutions, including the University of Southern California and the University of Tokyo.
However, large-scale production of digital doubles is still a long way off – the company currently offers more affordable speech recognition software and virtual assistant technology.
Matt Alt, co-founder of AltJapan Co., a company that produces English-language versions of popular Japanese video games and has written books about Japan including Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World, says the idea of the digital clone makes Japan more cultural Sense.
Ninjas, the famous feudal covert Japanese warriors, were known for their “Bunshin-Jutsu” techniques, which they used in battle to create the illusion of a double or helper to confuse the opponent. Bunshin jutsu idea was adopted and widely used in modern Japanese video games as well as manga comics and graphic novels.
“Who doesn’t want a helping hand from someone who understands them perfectly?” Alt said, but added that in the West, the idea of an existing doppelganger is “more scary”.
“There’s ‘Invasion of the Body Scavengers,’ or even the broomsticks that multiply like a virus in Disney’s ‘Fantasia,'” he said.
INCS toenter Co., another Tokyo-based startup, thrived as a production company of computer-assisted music for animation, manga, film, virtual reality, and games using so-called Vocaloid artists. The synthesized singers or musical performances known as Vocaloid are often paired with anime or manga style characters.
Like Yonekura’s digital clone, Vocaloids are an example of Japanese technology using computer software to duplicate human traits or likenesses.
INCS toenter hits include “Melt” which was created on a single desktop in 2007 and performed by a group called Supercell and has been played 23 million times on YouTube.
A more recent hit is “Kawaikute gomen,” meaning “Sorry I’m so cute,” by HoneyWorks, a Vocaloid group. Another is Eve, who sings the theme song of the mega-hit animated series “Jujutsu Kaisen” and has 4.6 million subscribers on his YouTube channel.
Some wonder if digital clones or Vocaloids could become popular outside of Japan. Digital assistant and voice software and computerized music exist in the West, but they are not clones or Vocaloids.
Yu Tamura, CEO and founder of INCS toenter, says he’s encouraged by the increasing worldwide popularity of Japanese cartoons and manga, but says the “Galapagos Syndrome” is one of the most important issues to watch out for.
The term refers to the isolated Pacific islands where animals have evolved in unique ways, and is commonly used in Japan to describe how some Japanese products, while successful domestically, have not caught on abroad.
Overseas consumers might find it whimsical or too cute, with the exception of Japanophiles, Tamura said.
“You just won’t understand,” he said.
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter