Menu Close

Tag: uncanny valley

This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Will the Digital Future Be Human Enough?

It’s easy to get tired, isn’t it? I heard today that a company is implanting its employees with microchips. Is that a PR stunt or just run-of-the-mill creepy management? Another company, called ObEN, emailed me about its unsettling 3D digital avatars (pictured above). According to the company’s website:

ObEN’s proprietary artificial intelligence technology quickly combines a person’s 2D image and voice to create a personal 3D avatar. Transport your personal avatar into virtual reality and augmented reality environments and enjoy deeper, social, more memorable experiences.

The company is owned by HTC VIVE. ObEN’s about page says, “ObEN was created out of a personal desire for the founders to remain connected to their families by ‘leaving behind’ a virtual copy of themselves during long travels.” Obvious Black Mirror parallel is obvious.

The PR person’s email said, “Knowing it’d be their biggest hurdle, the company has already transformed voice personalization using AI and speech synthesis — so now your virtual doppelganger not only sounds like you, but it can also sing like you, but better… and in Chinese.”

I don’t know why these things depress me. There are infinite issues in the world to be upset about, and in fact ObEN isn’t doing anything wrong. I’m the asshole, honestly, for making fun of their technology. People are devoting years of their lives to working on the project. Getting past the Uncanny Valley is hard.

I guess tonight I’m reflecting on how the internet can be a medium of alienation just as much as a medium of connection. Default engagement modes like snark, which is so prevalent on Twitter and Reddit, generate a lot of good jokes by making people feel bad. The targets are abstracted away as obscure names on screens, so it’s easy to do.

Ironically, VR avatars like ObEN’s are supposed to address the problem of compassion collapse. We’ll find out whether they work soon enough…

Brief Thoughts on Androids, Cyborgs, & Humanity

Horror drawing of androids by Apo Xen.

Artwork by Apo Xen.

“Most remarkable is David 8’s increased emotional capacity, which allows him to seamlessly adapt to any human encounter. Weyland has also fine-tuned David 8’s expression mapping sensors, engendering a strong sense of trust in 96% of users.” — Weyland Industries (the company from Prometheus)

Horror drawing of androids by Apo Xen.

Artwork by Apo Xen.

Androids are a parody of humanity. We design them in our image. We give them — and their software equivalents — our names. Sarah is the theoretical lifeguard bot, and Charles is the helpful museum attendant. Ava is the manic pixie dream bot turned indifferent assassin. David is the sociopathic HAL 9000 redux. Their personalities are stereotypes constructed around particular job roles.

We build and (fantasize about building) human-looking machines that are programmed to ape us, often replicating our weaknesses as well as our strengths. But of course androids cannot feel what we feel. They can’t even see what we see, because computers don’t identify images in the same way the human brain does. Layers of mathematical analysis learn to recognize pixel patterns, but they can be fooled by tweaks that seem silly to human eyes.

Cyborgs, on the other hand, are not so much an imitation of humanity as a gritty extension of it. (In case you’re not familiar with the distinction, an android is fully robotic, whereas a cyborg is a flesh human augmented by high technology.) We already live in a world of cyborgs — prosthetics and IUDsheart monitors that can be hacked — and the more speculative DIY experiments aim to add a sixth sense to our arsenal.

I feel much more comfortable with cyborgs than I do with androids. Why is that? Is it because contemporary androids are still mired in the uncanny valley? When there isn’t as much of a disconnect between robotics, machine learning, and genuine human behavior, maybe I won’t be able to tell the difference.

Or maybe androids will become the norm, because why give birth via vaginal canal when you can avoid it? Cyborgs will stand out as antiquated oddities, still based on blood and bones instead of upgrading to silicon and steel. Parents will generate their infant’s mind based on a random data seed, then tweak the variables until the result is acceptable.

Frankenstein Robotics

Dwarf Gekko

Still from a YouTube video by Diamond Dogs.

The gadget (creature?) pictured above is a Dwarf Gekko from the Metal Gear Solid video game series. According to an MGS fan site:

“Beyond using its three manipulator arms to move about, these unmanned weapons possess the dexterity to enter homes and office buildings, operate computer keyboards and open drawers to collect intelligence, and operate a handgun. Small enough to function unhindered in any space designed for human use.”

Something is profoundly creepy about the human-shaped limbs mounted on a robotic ball. It’s like an evil BB-8 designed by HR Giger with input from Hans Bellmer.

drawing by Hans Bellmer

Drawing by Hans Bellmer. See more here (NSFW).

In real life, we make humanoid robots because they can navigate “any space designed for human use” — AKA the built environment as it currently exists. We can integrate them into manufacturing, warehouse stocking, and other types of repetitive manual labor. This will potentially have a huge economic impact within a couple of decades, and it’s much easier to get there if we don’t need to rebuild every facility that will be affected. We can slide into the automated future factory by factory instead of jumping in everywhere all at once.

Despite its potential to shape this trend, Boston Dynamics, originator of the infamous BigDog robot, has been put up for sale by Alphabet (Google’s parent company). Apparently the executives at BD haven’t tried hard enough to generate revenue in the near-term. Bloomberg Business also reported that Google’s internal PR apparatus was not keen on BD’s efforts to make androids:

“After [Boston Dynamics’] latest robot video was posted to YouTube, in February, Google’s public-relations team expressed discomfort that Alphabet would be associated with a push into humanoid robotics. […] ‘There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs,’ wrote Courtney Hohne, a director of communications at Google and the spokeswoman for Google X. […] ‘We’re not going to comment on this video because there’s really not a lot we can add, and we don’t want to answer most of the Qs it triggers,’ she wrote.”

The term “uncanny valley” usually refers to the point when an animated human is not quite perfect, but really close — it turns out that being slightly off is much more unsettling than an obvious caricature. We need a similar term for the visceral reaction to repurposed humanness, like the Dwarf Gekko’s three limbs.

© 2019 Exolymph. All rights reserved.

Theme by Anders Norén.