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19 August 2008

The uncanny valley and the virtual briefer

We have long had a soft spot for the idea of virtual briefers – that is, interactive software agents which can deliver customized presentations to intelligence consumers. While nothing will ever likely beat the effectiveness of a real mind delivering insight regarding issues on which they have directly worked in a manner tailored the consumer’s interest, and being available for discussion and debate in real time, the virtual briefer could take the place of a large segment of the other briefing cases. Anyone who has spent time in the community knows these well – the interminably long, bullet point by bullet point monotone recital of someone else’s key judgments by a speaker who ought never have been placed in that position.

There have been multiple experiments along these lines, dating back ill-fated virtual newsreaders in the comparative dark ages of the Internet. Recently, lightweight video and audio production capabilities have seen a resurgence for delivery of prerecorded briefings and lectures (for which we are grateful, given the need to fill otherwise unproductive downtime in the friction of travel or commuting.) We are also aware of one relatively recent academic experiment at Mercyhurst’s intel studies program to create a new style of video briefing (or rather, a modernized lightweight version of the kinds of products frequently seen in the Reagan era White House, or even in visually dominant shops such as NGA) – although the results of that study have still regrettably not been made public. While these efforts all have their place, and have provided valuable lessons learned – especially when it comes to the gaps which must be overcome – the concepts are simply not sufficiently advanced to allow for effective widespread implementation.

However, the need for alternatives to the classic briefing continues to grow, especially as the range of consumers outside of the traditional spectrum served by the IC also grows. How many otherwise productive analysts have been sapped on a more or less fulltime basis by the need to support the multiple times daily briefings given in the many watch & warning oriented shops around the community? How many thinkers are burning themselves out at 3am to prepare for a consumer’s morning ritual? And how many of those briefings continue to be delivered to ever lower echelons of consumers merely interested in avoiding having to read a written product rather than in the true back and forth discussion and engagement of well executed briefing?

We thus continue to feel that there is a strong case for the further development and implementation of virtual briefers, at least in certain situated instances. We have been encouraged by advances in the key enabling technologies that would be required to make a robust implementation of this happen. Among the most critical are those that overcome the previous gaps in the cartoonish delivery offered by previous generations of avatars. However, most attempts at photorealistic avatars have thus far foundered in the uncanny valley – the response of the audience to appearance and behavior which is nearly, but not quite, entirely human.

Recent news out of the video gaming industry may however offer a potential solution to at least this part of the problem. At least of one firm has made exceptional progress – at least by evidence of the demonstration video – in bridging the uncanny valley.

Of course, conversational agents still have a long way to go. Without such agents, we would reiterate our previously expressed our concerns regarding the removal of the opportunity for human interaction between analysts and high value intelligence customers.

As a stopgap, one can however easily envision a hybrid structure evolving, in which basic briefings are delivered in a syndicated fashion by virtual talking heads, while a lightweight response interface captures any comments or questions from the consumer for routing to the appropriate analyst. It is certainly not real time, but for a wide variety of consumers such asynchronous but more tailored service may be exactly what they have been looking for when they cannot afford – or sustain – the level of analytic effort required for full time briefing support.

We have reason to believe that it will be the private sector intelligence shops that may adopt such virtual briefers first, as they have also been the early adopters of podcasts, webcasts, and other innovative delivery options. (We would not venture to lay odds on whether it will be a Stratfor, an iJet, an Economist Intelligence Unit, or some other entirely unknown shop - perhaps in the competitive intelligence arena - that takes this plunge first. And we would be even more foolish to predict which one might first succeed.) Yet one can easily see how a subscription based service could easily syndicate the dissemination of selected products – crafted by the usual suspects who lurk in the cubicle mazes or darkened basements – but delivered in a unique format tailored for the busy consumer. Likewise, one might envision a successful offering by a small competitive intelligence department located an otherwise large organization with extensive demands as yet unmet by traditional product formats. And with the new options for flash based video available from smartphones (including the increasingly ubiquitous iPhone), such a service - in whatever form it may emerge and evolve to thrive - is likely not too far off in the distant future.

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