Kara is self-aware: technology is climbing out of the uncanny valley, but toward what?


The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of robotic and 3D computer animation, which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s human likeness.

This, from the folks at game developer Quantic Dream, is simply remarkable.

With each passing day, it seems we get closer and closer to the point where we will be unable to distinguish between computer animations and actual people. This on top of an IBM supercomputer beating the greatest players in Jeopardy history. The culture-wide Turing Test seems to be underway in earnest, with the Nexus-1 just around the corner.

Maybe I exaggerate a tad, but clearly machines are gaining ground on us. In a course I taught some years back on technology and the Humanities at the University of Colorado, I focused on what I called the “Post-Humanities,” and in particular on the inflection point awaiting somewhere in our future when machines might become self-aware and begin questing after self-actualization, just as humans do. Arts, literature, philosophy – what happens when ones and zeroes begin asking questions like “why are we here?” What would we make of a digital Michelangelo?

The Kara short not only depicts the moment when a machine first awakens, but it does so with a technical fluidity that makes clear how much progress designers and programmers have made clambering up out of the uncanny valley, the curious territory where human replicas are just realistic enough to inspire loathing. A great deal of the emotional impact of this video obviously owes to the writers who crafted a scenario bound to evoke a viewer’s sympathy, but its viability as both art and as social critique ultimately hinges on whether or not the actual design and execution is advanced enough, realistic enough, to make us care. Do we feel empathy for Kara, or is she merely a highly advanced toaster?

Were they successful? Well, how did you react? That’s the answer, and the answer says as much about us as it does about our technology.

Tip of the hat to our friend fikshun for passing this one along.

3 comments

  • Thanks for posting this. I just watched it again with the sound off. I was surprised at how well it stood up, visuals/animation only. I was thinking that the story and voice acting might have been propping up the anims, but it still held up.

    That’s one thing that gets me. Voice synthesis has come so far but it still has so far to go. The human eye only notices visual glitchiness at a threshold of less than 60 frames per second. The human ear notices even minor glitches at around 1500 times per second. In this video, they wisely stuck with a normal human voice actor.

    • Sweet jebus, that’s creepy as hell.

      So, as I understand the whole project, we’re on the path toward creating artificial life just like this. As I see it, we already have life like this. We call them “sociopaths.”

      If only you could be persuaded to do a guest post on the subject….

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