NOT MANY people know this, but before Matt LeBlanc was a Top Gear presenter he was in a little-known cult sitcom about some implausibly good looking friends who lived in each other's pockets to the point that they ended up pairing off. Can’t remember the title.
LeBlanc played Italian-American actor Joey Tribbiani, a character he later revived in the worldwide smash spinoff Joey.
In celebration of this legendary TV character, scientists at Leeds University have created a digital avatar, the first time a TV favourite has been turned into a potential AI chatbot or personal assistant.
The team is refining a virtual Joey that uses complicated algorithms and a lot of observation of every nuance of his character in the hope that eventually he’ll be able to generate bespoke sentences in the style of the character.
"Our work is most closely related to visual text-to-speech systems, which take a sentence, in the form of text, and synthesise speech audio and a visual head with corresponding mouth motion," the team said in a paper titled Virtual Immortality: Reanimating characters from TV shows (PDF).
"Our virtual model is a 2D rendering of a character and is trained to generate visual speech using a concatenative unit selection system where short clips of mouth motion, called dynamic visiemes, are stitched together to form the visual signal. A similar approach is also taken for the audio.”
We’re not even sure some of those are words. Maybe Joey would know. He was always the smart one on Joey.
At present, using the first three seasons of the other sitcom as a learning set, the virtual Joey has learned to say: 'I want to do something wrong,' and 'Hey Ross, you want me to talk to some lady?' and 'I like pizza with cheese.'
Siri hardly needs to quake in its boots yet but you can already see, if you recall the classic episode of Joey where Joey says he likes to eat pizza to a woman who doesn’t know pizza has cheese on it, that this could change everything.
Imagine Jon Snow as your weather forecaster! He might struggle in the summer months. Or asking Bianca from EastEnders what a slang term for a rickshaw might be!
We’ll keep an eye on what the team is up to and ask it regularly: 'How you doin’?' and get back to you. µ
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