THE CREEP FACTOR
In the 1970s, Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori noticed that when he showed people the robots he built, the more vaguely human his robots appeared, the more positively people reacted. But as he began to improve his robots by adding more lifelike features, such as synthetic skin, he found that most people were more repulsed than impressed. He eventually hypothesised that without human characteristics, robots were simply less interesting. But gift them with too many human characteristics, they can generate a sense of disquiet and dread. The chasm between nearly human and fully human is what Mori identified as the uncanny valley. The discussion around the uncanny valley has been raging for years now, particularly with the advent of highly developed CGI techniques. When the film Shrek was first test screened during the early 2000s, its young audience of children were left mortified by the hyperrealism of the character Princess Fiona. As a result, Dreamworks Animation reworked the look of Fiona to make her seem more like the cartoon that she is and a less like the human she was seemed to be simulating.
Avoiding the uncanny valley is a difficult task. Characters either have to be photorealistic (practically indistinguishable from real humans, like Blade Runner’s replicants) or charmingly stylised (like in Pixar’s Wall-E). It’s clear that with every pore, freckle, lash and line carefully rendered in each of its avatars, Soul Machines is aiming to hit the nail on the former rather than the latter. And while many respond to Soul Machines’ avatars with astonishment and excitement, others express a more disconcerting reaction.
“You get the full range of reactions when people see our technology,” explains Cross. “When Mark does his BabyX demo, most people’s jaws will hit the floor at some point during the presentation. People are just blown away…[but] there are still people who find the concept of AI and robots creepy. They look at
Westworld and are horrified.” While Soul Machines straddles the delicate precipice between real and creepy, its founder isn’t quite as concerned about falling into the uncanny valley as he is on the avatars establishing a deep connection. “The brain reacts differently to something it perceives to be alive versus something which it perceives to be inanimate,” Dr. Sagar recently told VentureBeat. “If you ever see a realistic eye looking at you, you’re much more likely to respond than if you see a cartoon eye looking at you.”