THE CREEP FAC­TOR

Idealog - - SOUL MACHINES -

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.”

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