TOKYO -- Among the small subset of men who fall in love with female game and anime characters as if they were flesh and blood, there is an inside joke: "My girlfriend does not come out of the screen."
But what if "she" did?
A Tokyo startup called Couger is working to make that happen -- in a sense, at least -- using some of the world's hottest technologies, including artificial intelligence, blockchains and augmented reality. The result of this confluence of tech is what Couger calls a Virtual Human Agent.
In a video Couger put together, a man speaks to a woman on a computer screen. "Can you come over here?" he asks her.
"OK," she replies, before disappearing from the PC and showing up on the screen of a smartphone in the man's hand, with the camera mode switched on to enable AR.
"That's a nice chair," the woman says, after using her AI-driven image recognition abilities to assess footage of the room.
It may not be the stuff of a fairy-tale romance, but it is a start. Couger CEO Atsushi Ishii said it is the first such combination of technologies, when he pitched the Virtual Human Agent to a conference in Toronto in early May.
He was speaking at the Community Ethereum Development Conference, or EDCON, an event for developers working with the virtual currency Ethereum and blockchain technology. Couger was one of only 10 teams that passed the rigorous screening to take part in a "superdemo" contest, in which participants made presentations about their businesses and innovations.
Couger is a small company, with fewer than 15 employees. Many of its engineers are involved in game development; the consoles on a table in the middle of its head office give that away. But the company is also in the thick of a technological revolution, with pans in multiple fires -- not only AI and blockchains but also robotics and the internet of things.
Ishii's dream is to create "a world where devices act autonomously." This requires multiple technologies and hinges on a "gateway," or an interface that brings everything together.
Couger has been working on a gateway it calls Connectome since 2014. This promises to create a "smart space" by seamlessly linking different devices and technologies, paving the way for new innovations. The Virtual Human Agent arose as part of the effort to develop Connectome.
At EDCON, Couger stressed the importance of linking two technologies in particular -- AI and blockchains, or the digital ledgers used to record transactions for cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and Ethereum.
Why? AI learns by combing through huge volumes of data, identifying patterns and assessing new information. But unless we know what data was used to teach the AI, how can we know whether to trust its judgments?
Ishii's idea is to store AI learning records on a blockchain. Although it would be difficult to keep everything, given the huge volume of information, Ishii thinks it is feasible to at least retain information on "how" and "when" an AI system learned, and "who" taught it.
Couger's technical capabilities are getting noticed in corporate Japan. Telecommunications company KDDI and the startup are conducting a joint trial of an automated "smart contract" system using blockchain technology. Honda R&D has introduced an AI learning simulator Couger developed.
As for the Virtual Human Agent, it is unlikely to make many hearts flutter in its current state. It can have a conversation and turn lights on and off. But one day it may be able to figure out a user's feelings and physical condition on sight. Then it might be able to respond by, say, ordering a healthy meal.
This virtual girlfriend may not literally "come out of the screen," but it might be the next best thing.