The NEON stall at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was an anomaly — it had no products to show, just some large screens with human-looking characters going about some pre-programmed functions. Yet, it was one of the biggest crowdpullers at the Las Vegas Convention Centre — hundreds streaming in for a glimpse of the world’s first artificial humans.
Three days after he first showcased his creations to the world, the brain behind the NEONs — NEO (new) + humaN — still seemed nervous before his daily live demonstration. In the front row were the parents of Pranav Mistry, president and CEO of Star Labs, the independent unit of Samsung that is behind the latest creation.
“As I grew up in India, in a small village, I always used to ask: can we make technology more human?” Mistry started his session, with a white neon sign above saying NEON, and flanked by screens showing his creations. The boy from Palanpur in Gujarat is no stranger to the limelight, having taken the stage at many Samsung keynote events showcasing products he has created for the Korean giant.
But this time it was different. There was no Samsung logo behind for reassurance: the Star Labs president was on his own. And that seemed to be the freedom that Samsung has given the IIT-Kharagpur graduate who joined the company as director of research in 2012. Mistry was known as the person behind the UI and UX that millions of Samsung consumers used daily. NEON is not much different — it is almost like a human interface to make technology more human, as he has always wanted to.
“There is AR, VR, and many other new technologies. But all these are not making technology easier for people… all these are just new ways to connect to the same data,” Mistry told The Sunday Express. But all this new technology, he said, was just making us more and more “disconnected”. “Technology should be that much human… My work has always been about how machines can become more and more like us, rather than we becoming more like machines.”
A human interface, he said, will help us all know more about each other. So NEONs are not like virtual assistants that plug into the Internet and are ready to answer queries or play a song on request. They are more about shared experiences, learning skills, and gradually creating memories.
But that layer is a few years away. For now, NEONs are well under the control of their creators — and while it takes milliseconds for them to emote like humans when asked to, it will take time yet for them to know when to smile or frown on their own.
NEONs are powered by a proprietory technology called CORE R3 — “reality, real time, and responsiveness” — and will have to wait for another technology, SPECTRA, later this year to start adding the layer to intelligence that will ultimately make them autonomous.
“CORE R3 is the front-end reality engine that is able to give you that real expression. M NEON, right now, does not know when to smile. When you come tomorrow and talk to a neon, they don’t know that you were here yesterday,” the 38-year-old explained. The spectrum of emotions and knowledge will come only when the NEONs are “actually in the field”; this is the layer that SPECTRA will enable later, Mistry said. Initially, Mistry wants to focus on B2B scenarios, where the complex memory later is not that important.
Mistry is clear that he does not want NEONs to have collective memory: “That’s not the way I have designed these.” That is also a safeguard of sorts. “A product like Facebook is about ensuring how its billion node network works. If anything breaks there, everything breaks. My network is a small network that can live independently.”
But Mistry is also categorical that a physical form for his NEONs is not possible in his lifetime. “I’m a very optimistic person when it comes to technology… but I don’t think that we are anywhere close to having the physical embodiment of the NEONs in the next 25 or 30 years.”
And he does not want to plug in NEONs to the robots that are already there. He would, however, like to collaborate with companies like Google, Facebook, and Baidu that have done work in similar fields.
“I come from a small town environment… a boy aiming to change the world we are living in. I know I can do that,” Mistry said, recalling how he could not speak English before he came to the US over 15 years ago. But the boy from Palanpur does not want to be known for the money he makes. “What inspired me is Michelangelo or even Walt Disney. I don’t know how rich they were… but what they gave to me, to the world, and to billions of people is the dreams.”