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.

High Fidelity: Body Language through “Telekinesics”

June 2, 2013

Human communication demonstrates the usual punctuated equilibria of any natural evolutionary system. From hand gestures to grunts to telephones to email and beyond, human communication has not only evolved, but splintered off into many modalities and degrees of asynchrony.

hifi-logoI recently had the great fortune to join a company that is working on the next great surge in human communication: High Fidelity, Inc. This company is bringing together several new technologies to make this happen.

So, what is the newest evolutionary surge in human communication? I would describe it using a term from Virtual Body Language (page 22):

Telekinesics is a word invented to denote…”the study of all emerging nonverbal practices across the internet, by adding the prefix, tele to Birdwhistell’s, term kinesics. It could easily be confused with “telekinesis”: the ability to cause movement at a distance through the mind alone (the words differ by only one letter). But hey, these two phenomena are not so different anyway, so a slip of the tongue wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Telekinesics may be defined as “the science of body language as conducted over remote distances via some medium, including the internet”. 

And now it’s not just science, but practice: body language is ready to go online…in realtime.

And when I say “realtime” – I mean, pretty damn fast, compared to most things that zip (or try to zip) across the internet. And when we’re talking about subtle head nods, changes in eye contact, fluctuations in your voice, and shoulder shrugs, fast is not just a nicety, it is a necessity – for clear communication using a body.

Here’s Ryan Downe showing an early stage of avatar head movement using Google Glass.

Philip Rosedale, the founder of High Fidelity, often talks about how cool it would be for my avatar to walk up to your avatar and give it a little shoulder-shove, or a fist-bump, or an elbow-nudge, or a hug…and for your avatar to respond with a slight – but noticeable – movement.

It would appear that human touch (or at least the visual/audible representation of human touch) is on the verge of becoming a reality – through telekinesics. Of all the modalities and senses that we use to communicate, touch is the most primal: we share it with the oldest microorganisms.

touch_avatarWhen touch is manifest on the internet, along with highly-crafted virtual environments, maybe, just maybe, we will have reached that stage in human evolution when we can have a meaningful, intimate exchange – even if one person is in Shanghai and the other is in Chicago.

small_earthAnd that means people can stop having to fly around the world and burning fossil fuels in order to have 2-hour-long business meetings. And that means reducing our carbon footprint. And that means we might have a better chance of not pissing-off Mother Earth to the degree that she has a spontaneous fever and shrugs us off like pesky fleas.

Which would really suck.

So…keep an eye on what we’re doing at High Fidelity, and get ready for the next evolutionary step in human communication. It just might be necessary for our survival.

Voice as Puppeteer

May 5, 2012

(This blog post is re-published from an earlier blog of mine called “avatar puppetry” – the nonverbal internet. I’ll be phasing out that earlier blog, so I’m migrating a few of those earlier posts here before I trash it).


According to Gestural Theory, verbal language emerged from the primal energy of the body, from physical and vocal gestures.


The human mind is at home in a world of abstract symbols – a virtual world separated from the gestural origins of those symbols. An evolution from the analog to the digital continues today with the flood of the internet over earth’s geocortex. Our thoughts are awash in the alphabet: a digital artifact that arose from a gestural past. It’s hard to imagine that the mind could have created the concepts of Self, God, Logic, and Math: belief structures so deep in our wiring – generated over millions of years of genetic, cultural, and neural evolution. I’m not even sure if I fully believe that these structures are non-eternal and human-fabricated. Since the Copernican Revolution yanked humans out from the center of the universe, it continues to progressively kick down the pedestals of hubris. But, being humans, we cannot stop this trajectory of virtuality, even as we become more aware of it as such.

I’ve observed something about the birth of online virtual worlds, and the foundational technologies involved. One of the earliest online virtual worlds was Onlive Traveler, which used realtime voice.


My colleague, Steve DiPaola invented some techniques for Traveler which cause the voice to animate the floating faces that served as avatars.

But as online virtual worlds started to proliferate, they incorporated the technology of chat rooms – textual conversations. One quirky side-effect of this was the collision of computergraphical humanoid 3D models with text-chat. These are strange bedfellows indeed – occupying vastly different cognitive dimensions.


Many of us worked our craft to make these bedfellows not so strange, such as the techniques that I invented with Chuck Clanton at, called Avatar Centric Communication.

Later, voice was introduced to I invented a technique for voice chat, and later re-implemented a variation for Second Life, for voice-triggered gesticulation.

Imagine the uncanny valley of hearing real voices coming from avatars with no associated animation. When I first witnessed this in a demo, the avatars came across as propped-up corpses with telephone speakers attached to their heads. Being so tuned-in to body language as I am, I got up on the gesticulation soap box and started a campaign to add voice-triggered animation. As an added visual aid, I created the sound wave animation that appears above avatar heads for both There and SL…


Gesticulation is the physical-visual counterpart to vocal energy – we gesticulate when we speak – moving our eyebrows, head, hands, etc. – and it’s almost entirely unconscious. Since humans are so verbally-oriented, and since we expect our bodies to produce natural body language to correspond to our spoken communications, we should expect the same of our avatars. This is the rationale for avatar gesticulation.

I think that a new form of puppeteering is on the horizon. It will use the voice. And it won’t just take sound signal amplitudes as input, as I did with voice-triggered gesticulation. It will parse the actual words and generate gestural emblems as well as gesticulations. And just as we will be able to layer filters onto our voices to mask our identities or role-play as certain characters, we will also be able to filter our body language to mimic the physical idiolects of Egyptians, Native Americans, Sicilians, four-year-old Chinese girls, and 90-year old Ethiopian men.

Digital-alphabetic-technological humanity reaches down to the gestural underbelly and invokes the primal energy of communication. It’s a reversal of the gesture-to-words vector of Gestural Theory.

And it’s the only choice we have for transmitting natural language over the geocortex, because we are sitting on top of a thousands-year-old heap of alphabetic evolution.

Virtual Sentience Requires a Gaze

November 28, 2011

(This blog post is re-published from an earlier blog of mine called “avatar puppetry” – the nonverbal internet.  I originally wrote it in September of 2009. I’ll be phasing out that earlier blog, so I’m migrating a few of those earlier posts here before I trash it).


I was speaking with my colleague Michael Nixon at the School of Interactive Art and Technology. We were talking about body language in non-human animated characters. He commented that before you can imbue a virtual character with apparent sentience, it has to have the ability to GAZE – in other words, look at something. In other words, it has a head with eyes. Or maybe just a head. Or… a “head”.

Here’s the thing about gaze: it pokes out of the local (“lonely”) coordinate system of the character and into the global (“social”) coordinate system of the world and other sentient beings. Gaze is the psychic vector that connects a character with the world. The character “places it’s gaze upon the world”. Luxo Jr is a great example of imbuing an otherwise inanimate object with sentience (and lots of personality besides) by using body language such as gaze.

I have observed something missing in video conferencing. Gaze. Notice in this set of four images how the video chat participants cannot make eye-contact with each other. This is because they are not sharing the same physical 3D space. Nor are they sharing the same virtual 3D space!

Gaze is one of the most powerful communicative elements of natural language, along with the musicality of speech, and of course facial and bodily gesture. This is especially true among groups of young single people in which hormones are flying, and flirtation, coyness, and jealousy create a symphony of psychic vectors…

At, I designed the initial avatar gaze system. With the help of Chuck Clanton, I created an “intimacam”, which aimed perpendicular to the consensual gaze of the avatars, and zoomed-in closer when the avatar heads came closer to each other.

The greatest animators have known about the power of gaze for as long as the craft has existed. This highly-social component of body language has a mathematical manifestation in the virtual spaces of cartoons, computer games, and virtual worlds. And it is one of the many elements that will become refined and codified and included into the virtual body language of the internet.

Human communication is migrating over to the internet – the geo-cortex of posthumanity. Text is leading the way. Body language has some catching up to do. Brian Rotman has some interesting things to say along these lines in his book, Becoming Beside Ourselves.

We can learn a lot from Pixar animators, as well as psychologists and actors, as we develop virtual worlds and collaborative workspaces.


In response to my earlier post, Laban-for-animators expert Leslie Bishko made this comment:

“My .2c – breath promotes the illusion of sentience, gaze promotes the illusion of interaction and relationship!”

New Discovery at Max Planck

October 29, 2011

I came across this article in Science Daily:

Talk to the Virtual Hands: Body Language of Both Speaker and Listener Affects Success in Virtual Reality Communication Game

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute found that “…virtual communication usually lacks the body gestures so common in face-to-face interactions”.


The researchers found that …”the lack of gestural information from both speaker and listener limits successful communication in virtual environments.”

That’s quite an insight.

They also found that “participants move much less in a virtual environment than they do in the “real world.”


The Tail Wagging the Brain

October 14, 2011

Our beloved dog Higgs died a few month ago. Higgs was a very special dog; full of life, full of love. Higgs and I had established an intimate body language connection for over ten years. He changed my brain.

My smiles were his tail wags; his tail wags were my smiles. Because of neuroplasticity, the ability for our brains to adapt and adjust, we were able to fuse semiotically across species lines.

This communication across species lines is analogous to people and software interpreting signals across the internet. We have invented new forms of punctuation to make up for a lack of physical expression in emails and text chats. I would say the same is true for 3D games and virtual worlds. But avatars, no matter how awesome-looking, are terribly clunky as instruments for realtime expression.

Meanwhile, new forms of punctuation have been invented: small, packaged symbols. They are quick to create, and they travel efficiently across the internet. Smileys and emoticons have more currency and emotional leverage than avatars, because they live in typographical soil: an ecosystem that is still much more established and pervasive than virtual worlds. Perhaps text will continue to become more electric, dynamic, intelligent, and integrated with graphical interfaces, such that smileys will evolve into avatars.

The internet is accelerating our posthuman evolution. We will come to have a deeper understanding of our animal cousins – because the primal affordances of the biosphere will be better-understood. Wha? you might say.  Jaron Lanier has already been talking about this kind of stuff for a long time – this idea that (with virtual reality) we will be able to “become” lobsters or snakes or cloud-sized creatures. I mention Jaron in a previous post, and the ways in which our bodymaps adjust to posthuman communication.

It’s not just about imagination: it’s about communicating and having a form of body language that is compatible with the internet. More and more of our communication is migrating to the internet. And since living languages evolve (including body languages) the new ecology of the internet will fertilize new forms of gesture, sound, moving text, and other dynamical forms.

What does this have to do with tails and brains?

Me and Higgs had established a body language bond. New kinds of body language bonds are emerging as we interact through the internet. Our brains are adapting.

Micha Cardenas became a Dragon in Second Life for 365 hours straight. What happened to her brain? I can imagine that people who spend large portions of their lives as Furries with animated tails have dreams of expressing with their tails and ears, like the Na’viThese ideas are covered more thoroughly in The Tail Wagging the Brain.

Speaking Dolphin

Researchers from Aberdeen University and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia found that dolphins use discrete units of body language as they swim together near the surface of water. They observed efficiency in these signals, similar to what occurs in frequently-used words in human verbal language.

As human natural language goes online, and as our body language gets processed, data-compressed, and alphabetized for efficient traversal over the internet, we may start to see more patterns of our embodied language that resemble those created by dolphins, and many other social species besides. The background communicative buzz of the biosphere may start to make more sense in the process of whittling our own communicative energy down to its essential features, and being able to analyze it digitally. With a universal body language alphabet, we might someday be able to animate our skin like cephalopods, or speak “dolphin”, using our tails, as we lope across the virtual waves.