Investors have taken notice, with VC money pouring into what’s predicted to become a $527 billion industry by the end of the decade. Image Credit: Supplied

California: Every business has that employee it couldn’t stand to lose. The outstanding one. The one you joke about cloning.

Well, the joke might one day be on us as the artificial intelligence boom gathers speed.

And digital clones - avatars by another name - present a world of business, economic, scientific and artistic opportunities, even as they also raise a host of ethical questions.

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To see just how far the technology has already progressed, Bloomberg Television anchor Tom Mackenzie cloned himself. Then he had a chat with his AI-powered twin, call him Avatar Tom.

Mackenzie’s digital twin, created by London-based synthetic media platform Synthesia and using ChatGPT to generate its responses, is animated by algorithms able to mimic his appearance, behavior and voice.

Avatars could well be the next big thing in the AI space, with a variety of industries eyeing them to boost productivity, cut costs and streamline operations including training, customer support, sales and communications.

Investors have taken notice, with VC money pouring into what’s predicted to become a $527 billion industry by the end of the decade.

Synthesia is among the leaders, having raised $50 million and developed “human” avatars for over 15,000 companies, including McDonald’s Corp., Accenture Plc and the UK’s National Health Service.

Avatars can create greater efficiencies within an organization and be used to replace documents and PowerPoint presentations with more engaging videos, said a spokeswoman at Synthesia.

At a cost of about $1,000 per custom-made avatar, the London-based company even created a synthetic David Beckham, a copy of the former football star able to speak nine languages.

Google-backed Runway and Deep Voodoo, popular for its special effects in a Kendrick Lamar music video, are also producing AI-powered human avatars.

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There is potentially a dark side, given the speed of technological advance and the almost complete absence of regulation or ethical guidelines.

At risk of turning into “deepfake” machines, there is already a worrying history of such platforms releasing propaganda or outright lies, without accountability. Synthesia said it strengthened the company’s regulations this year after one of its avatars was associated with the spread of misinformation.

And of course, replacing human jobs with avatars is another source of concern. When asked about this, Avatar Tom simply said: “Human TV anchors bring unique qualities such as charisma, critical thinking and adaptability. So rest assured, I’m here to assist, not to take your place.”

So while human Mackenzie’s job seems safe for now, it may not be too long before that changes.