Uncanny AI: Artificial Intelligence In The Uncanny Valley
May 30, 2007 Page 1 of 4
I ring the bell and Trip answers the door.
"How's it going asshole?", I ask, and instantly his face falls. My mouth opens and I feel a quick spike of guilt before telling myself he's not real. In silence, with a heartbreakingly sad look, Trip slowly shuts the door in my face. Well that was new. I reload.
I expected the AI to break, not look like a kicked puppy at the right moment. On each run through Façade it pushes back at me a little, marginally understanding a bit of what I'm doing and saying. It does feel broken, but within a small and repetitive setting it keeps on creating microscopic and novel bits of emotional engagement. All of those fall to experience eventually: my unconscious gradually catches up with my conscious knowledge, learning that Trip and Grace are things, not people.
The ability of things to fool us is often a question of resolution. Something that can fool you at a glance will not stand against a close look or a prolonged gaze. Spend long enough watching a magician doing the same trick, or see it from the right vantage, and eventually you'll unravel it.
This goes for CGI imagery of people, such as photo-realistic vector art or 3D models. What looks incredibly realistic at a distance may not under closer scrutiny. When we’re accustomed to or expectant of it, a lack of detail can be stylistic to the point of being painterly, but when unexpected it can pitch a nearly photographic representation headlong into the Uncanny Valley.
The valley has enjoyed widespread discussion in relation to the appearance of CGI humans over the past few years, and while thinking about it recently, the very worst moments of my social life flashed in front of me interlocked with thoughts of some of the best game AI. I now think that the uncanny valley applies to behavior too.
There's a small minority of people who are consistently strange in particular ways. You've probably met a few of them. Human though they are, interaction with them doesn't follow the usual dance of eye contact, facial expressions, intonations, gestures, conversational beats, and so forth. For most, it can be disconcerting to interact with such people. Often, it's not their fault, but even so the most extreme of them can seem spooky, and are sometimes half jokingly referred to as monstrous or robotic.
I don't mean to pick on them as a group; nearly all of us dip into such behavior sometimes, perhaps when we're upset, out of sorts, or drunk. Relative and variable as our social skills are, AI is nowhere near such a sophisticated level of interactive ability. It is, however, robotic. Monstrous and sometimes unintentionally comedic; the intersection of broken AI and spooky people is coming.
The problem is compounded by the fact that there's no way to abstract behavior or make it "cute". Cuteness is visual, so by rendering it as a cartoon even the repellent appearance of an ichor-dripping elder god can be offset. In a similar way, by its visual characteristics a Tickle Me Elmo doll pushes a lot of our "cute" buttons. However, when it's set on fire and continues to giggle, kick it's feet and shout "Stop! Stop! It tickles!" while it burns into a puddle of fuming goo, it seems horrific, profane and hilarious by turns.
That’s programmed behavior pushed out of context, and the highly specialized fragments of AI currently integrated into video games easily break in the same way when they stray from their intended stages.
Strange or sick behavior can't be abstracted into a cuter, more appealing version of itself unless it's made burlesque, naive, or consequence free, and of course this would have drastic narrative effects. While a story can be told through any number of sensory aesthetics, behavior itself works through time, its meaning often independent of representation. That's extremely important for interactive media.
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