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.

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.