How Does Artificial Life Avoid the Uncanny Valley?

July 6, 2015

The following creepy humanoids provide ample reason to fear artificial intelligence:

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 12.59.52 PM

This is just one example of virtual humans that would be appropriate in a horror movie. There are many others. Here’s my question: why are there so many creepy humans in computer animation?

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 7.27.08 PMThe uncanny problem is not necessarily due to the AI itself: it’s usually the result of failed attempts at generating appropriate body language for the AI. As I point out in the Gestural Turing Test: “intelligence has a body”. And nothing ruins a good AI more than terrible body language. And yes, when I say “body language”, I include the sound, rhythm, timbre, and prosody of the voice (which is produced in the body).

Simulated body language can steer clear of the uncanny valley with some simple rules of thumb:

1. Don’t simulate humans unless you absolutely have to.

2. Use eye contact between characters. This is not rocket science, folks.

3. Cartoonify. Less visual detail leaves more to the imagination and less that can go wrong.

4. Do the work to make your AI express itself using emotional cues. Don’t be lazy about it.

Shameless plug: Wiglets are super-cartoony non-humanoid critters that avoid the uncanny valley, and use emotional cues, like eye contact, proxemic movements, etc.


These videos show how wiglets move and act.

0313lifeArtificial Life was invented partly as a way to get around a core problem of AI: humans are the most sophisticated and complex animals on Earth. Simulating them in a realistic way is nearly impossible, because we can always detect a fake. Getting it wrong (which is almost always the case) results in something creepy, scary, clumsy, or just plain useless.

In contrast, simulating non-human animals (starting with simple organisms and working up the chain of emergent complexity) is a pragmatic program for scientific research – not to mention developing consumer products, toys, games, and virtual companions.

We’ll get to believable artificial humans some day.


I am having a grand old time making virtual animals using simulated physics, genetics, and a touch of AI. No lofty goals here. With a good dose of imagination (people have plenty of it), it only takes a teaspoon of AI (crafted just right) to make a compelling experience – to make something feel and act sentient. And with the right blend of body language, responsiveness, and interactivity, imagination can fill-in all the missing details.

Alan Turing understood the role of the observer, and this is why he chose a behaviorist approach to asking the question: “what is intelligence?”

intelligent-animals-01Artificial Intelligence is founded on the anthropomorphic notion that human minds are the pinnacle of intelligence on Earth. But hubris can sometimes get in the way of progress. Artificial Life – on the other hand, recognizes that intelligence originates from deep within ancient Earth. We are well-advised to understand it (and simulate it) as a way to better understand ourselves, and how we came to be who we are.

It’s also not a bad way to avoid the uncanny valley.

Your Voice is Puppeteering an Avatar in my Brain

November 23, 2014

I have been having a lot of video chat conversations recently with a colleague who is on the opposite side of the continent.

Now that we have been “seeing” each other on a weekly basis, we have become very familiar with each other’s voices, facial expressions, gesticulations, and so on.

But, as is common with any video conferencing system: the audio and video signal is unpredictable. Often the video signal totally freezes up, or it lags behind the voice. It can be really distracting when the facial expressions and mouth movements do not match the sound I’m hearing.

Sometimes we prefer to just turn off the video and stick with voice.

One day after turning off the video, I came to the realization that I have become so familiar with his body language that I can pretty much guess what I would be seeing as he spoke. Basically, I realized that…


Since the voice of my colleague is normally synchronized with his physical gesticulations, facial expressions, and body motions, I can easily imagine the visual counterpart to his voice.

This is not new to video chat. It has been happening for a long time with telephone, when we speak with someone we know intimately.


In fact, it may have even happened at the dawn of our species.

According to gestural theory, physical, visible gesture was once the primary communication modality in our ape ancestors. Then, our ancestors began using their hands increasingly for tool manipulation—and this created evolutionary pressure for vocal sounds to take over as the primary language delivery method. The result is that we humans can walk, use tools, and talk, all at the same time.

As gestures gave way to audible language, our ancestors could keep looking for nuts and berries while their companions were yacking on.

Here’s the point: The entire progression from gesture to voice remains as a vestigial pathway in our brains. And this is why I so easily imagine my friend gesturing at me as I listen to his voice.

Homunculi and Mirror Neurons

There are many complex structures in my brain, including several body maps that represent the positions, movements and sensations within my physical body. There are also mirror neurons – which help me to relate to and sympathize with other people. There are neural structures that cause me to recognize faces, walking gaits, and voices of people I know.

Evolutionary biology and neuroscience research points to the possibility that language may have evolved out of, and in tandem with gestural communication in homo sapiens. Even as audible language was freed from the physicality of gesture, the sound of one’s voice remains naturally associated with the visual, physical energy of the source of that voice (for more on this line of reasoning, check out Terrance Deacon).

puppeteer2Puppeteering is the art of making something come to life, whether with strings (as in a marionette), or with your hand (as in a muppet). The greatest puppeteers know how to make the most expressive movement with the fewest strings.

The same principle applies when I am having a Skype call with my wife. I am so intimately familiar with her voice and the associated visual counterpart, that all it takes is a few puppet strings for her to appear and begin animating in my mind – often triggered by a tiny, scratchy voice in a cell phone.

Enough pattern-recognition material has accumulated in my brain to do most of the work.

I am fascinated with the processes that go on in our brains that allow us to build such useful and reliable inner-representations of each other. And I have wondered if we could use more biomimicry – to apply more of these natural processes towards the goal of transmitting body language and voice across the internet.

These ideas are explored in depth in Voice as Puppeteer.