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.

Uncanny Charlie

August 18, 2012

The subway system in Boston has a mascot named “Charlie”, a cartoon character who rides the train and reminds people to use the “Charlie Card”. With the exception of his face, he looks like a normal airbrushed graphic of a guy with a hat. But his face? Uh, it’s f’d up.

In case you don’t know yet about the Uncanny Valley, it refers to a graph devised by a Japanese robot maker. The graph shows typical reactions to human likeness in robots and other simulations. The more realistic the robot (or computer generated character) the more CREEPY it becomes….

..until it is so utterly realistic that you are fooled, and you respond to it as if it were a living human. But watch out. If the eyes do something wacky or scary, or if something else reveals the fact that it is just an animated corpse…DOWN you fall…. into the valley.

Anyway, I have a theory about the uncanny valley: it is just a specific example of a more general phenomenon that occurs when incompatible levels of realism are juxtaposed in a single viewing experience. So for instance, an animated film in which the character motions are realistic – but their faces are abstract – can be creepy. How about a computer animation in which the rendering is super-realistic, but the motions are stiff and artificial? Creepola. A cartoon character where one aspect is stylized and other aspects are realistic looks…not right. That’s Charlie’s issue.

Stylized faces are everywhere:

But when an artist takes a stylized line-drawn graphic of a face and renders it with shading, I consider this to be a visual language blunder. The exception to this rule of thumb is demonstrated by artists who purposefully juxtapose styles and levels of realism, for artistic impact, such as the post-modern painter David Salle.

The subject of levels of realism and accessibility in graphic design is covered in McCloud’s Understanding Comics. The image-reading eyebrain can adjust its zone of suspension of disbelief to accommodate a particular level of stylism/realism. But in general, it cannot easily handle having that zone bifurcated.

Charlie either needs a face transplant to match his jacket and hat, or else he needs to start wearing f’d-up clothes to match his f’d-up face.