Just when we were getting our heads around non-fungible tokens—crypto tokens that represent a unique digital asset—they’re now gaining sentience and moving to the metaverse.
Some of the best-known NFTs are unique avatars that people buy and sell, such as those in the CyberPunks series or Bored Ape Yacht Club. But NFTs don’t do much. Now, Alethea AI, a new company backed by entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, is wrapping avatars in AI that animates them, giving them conversation skills and knowledge. Collectively, the company calls this the avatar’s “pod” or “soul,” Alethea CEO Arif Khan tells me. Then, these intelligent NFTs, or iNFTs, become something like chatbots that can be owned, trained, or sold. Khan says his company originally used OpenAI’s GPT-3 natural language model to give the NFTs their speech and intelligence, but now uses an AI model it developed in-house.
“It’s a way of giving not only a personality to an avatar but to apply interactivity and to make it extensible,” Cuban said in an email to Fast Company. “You can take Alethea AI and let it grow into almost anything.” One of these NFTs, called “Alice,” already sold for $478,000 on Sotheby’s Natively Digital market in June.
Starting on October 14, people can bring their NFT avatars to Alethea’s new “Noah’s Ark” site, where the “soul” can be added. Khan says that the AI intelligence layer is contained in a new NFT that then binds with the avatar’s original NFT. Or, you can build your own intelligent NFT–or iNFT–starting from a number of template.
The avatars I saw at the Alethea site included faithful recreations of well-known NFTs such as Bored Apes and CryptoPunks, literary and historical figures such as Edgar Allen Poe and Catherine the Great, and cartoon characters like Snow White. The facial movement of the avatars wasn’t completely natural and fluid, and their vocal inflections seemed a bit labored, but it was good enough. I didn’t expect perfection from an NFT–not yet anyway.
I also watched as Khan started a quick chat with the Hentai character Waifu 101. After he exchanged some pleasantries with the NFT he asked her “What is the meaning of life?” To this she responded in a bored teenager voice “I don’t like existentialism.” The fact that she related Khan’s question to the philosophy movement shows an impressive level of common knowledge and conversation skill.
Alethea calls Noah’s Ark a metaverse because avatars can use their new skills to interact with other iNFTs there. For example, a CyberPunk could be trained to engage in a rap battle with a Bored Ape avatar. Or they can even form teams and compete with each other in games. Khan says that as the avatars interact they create new training data that feeds the AI model that powers them all.
Alethea probably doesn’t expect to provide an all-purpose digital space that millions will use. Its technology is another way to approach the creation of the avatars that may represent us in the metaverse. It attaches value and provenance to avatars, and to link them directly to the blockchain. This might be a good thing, if, in five or ten years, something resembling a metaverse begins taking shape and impacting people’s lives.
For the time being, however, it’s not clear why a talking NFT like Alice could be worth almost half a million dollars. People within the crypto space often say it’s best to buy NFTs because you love them and want to own them, but a price tag like that smacks of speculation and market timing, not love.
Still, some big names in crypto see real value in Alethea’s contribution to the NFT. Cuban, along with Metapurse, Crypto.com Capital, Multicoin, Dapper Labs, and others participated in a private sale of crypto tokens in Alethea that generated $16 million.