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Have you ever encountered a lifelike humanoid robot or a realistic computer-generated face that seem a bit off or unsettling, though you can’t quite explain why?
Take for instance AVA, one of the “digital humans” created by New Zealand tech startup Soul Machines as an on-screen avatar for Autodesk. Watching a lifelike digital being such as AVA can be both fascinating and disconcerting. AVA expresses empathy through her demeanor and movements: slightly raised brows, a tilt of the head, a nod.
By meticulously rendering every lash and line in its avatars, Soul Machines aimed to create a digital human that is virtually undistinguishable from a real one. But to many, rather than looking natural, AVA actually looks creepy. There’s something about it being almost human but not quite that can make people uneasy.
Like AVA, many other ultra-realistic avatars, androids, and animated characters appear stuck in a disturbing in-between world: They are so lifelike and yet they are not “right.” This void of strangeness is known as the uncanny valley.
Uncanny Valley: Definition and History
The uncanny valley is a concept first introduced in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori, then a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The term describes Mori’s observation that as robots appear more humanlike, they become more appealing—but only up to a certain point. Upon reaching the uncanny valley, our affinity descends into a feeling of strangeness, a sense of unease, and a tendency to be scared or freaked out.
Image: Masahiro Mori
The uncanny valley as depicted in Masahiro Mori’s original graph: As a robot’s human likeness [horizontal axis] increases, our affinity towards the robot [vertical axis] increases too, but only up to a certain point. For some lifelike robots, our response to them plunges, and they appear repulsive or creepy. That’s the uncanny valley.
In his seminal essay for Japanese journal Energy, Mori wrote:
I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the uncanny valley.
Later in the essay, Mori describes the uncanny valley by using an example—the first prosthetic hands:
One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on a par with false teeth. However, when we realize the hand, which at first site looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.
In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Mori explained how he came up with the idea for the uncanny valley:
“Since I was a child, I have never liked looking at wax figures. They looked somewhat creepy to me. At that time, electronic prosthetic hands were being developed, and they triggered in me the same kind of sensation. These experiences had made me start thinking about robots in general, which led me to write that essay. The uncanny valley was my intuition. It was one of my ideas.”
Uncanny Valley Examples
To better illustrate how the uncanny valley works, here are some examples of the phenomenon. Prepare to be freaked out.
Photo: Hiroshi Ishiguro/Osaka University/ATR
Taking the top spot in the “creepiest” rankings of IEEE Spectrum’s Robots Guide, Telenoid is a robotic communication device designed by Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro. Its bald head, lifeless face, and lack of limbs make it seem more alien than human.
Photo: Andrew Oh/Javier Movellan/Calit2
Engineers and roboticists at the University of California San Diego’s Machine Perception Lab developed this robot baby to help parents better communicate with their infants. At 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall and weighing 30 kilograms (66 pounds), Diego-san is a big baby—bigger than an average 1-year-old child.
“Even though the facial expression is sophisticated and intuitive in this infant robot, I still perceive a false smile when I’m expecting the baby to appear happy,” says Angela Tinwell, a senior lecturer at the University of Bolton in the U.K. and author of The Uncanny Valley in Games and Animation. “This, along with a lack of detail in the eyes and forehead, can make the baby appear vacant and creepy, so I would want to avoid those ‘dead eyes’ rather than interacting with Diego-san.”
3. Geminoid HI
Photo: Osaka University/ATR/Kokoro
Another one of Ishiguro’s creations, Geminoid HI is his android replica. He even took hair from his own scalp to put onto his robot twin. Ishiguro says he created Geminoid HI to better understand what it means to be human.
Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Getty Images
Designed by David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Sophia is one of the most famous humanoid robots. Like Soul Machines’ AVA, Sophia displays a range of emotional expressions and is equipped with natural language processing capabilities.
5. Anthropomorphized felines
The uncanny valley doesn’t only happen with robots that adopt a human form. The 2019 live-action versions of the animated film The Lion King and the musical Cats brought the uncanny valley to the forefront of pop culture. To some fans, the photorealistic computer animations of talking lions and singing cats that mimic human movements were just creepy.
Are you feeling that eerie sensation yet?
Uncanny Valley: Science or Pseudoscience?
Despite our continued fascination with the uncanny valley, its validity as a scientific concept is highly debated. The uncanny valley wasn’t actually proposed as a scientific concept, yet has often been criticized in that light.
Mori himself said in his IEEE Spectrum interview that he didn’t explore the concept from a rigorous scientific perspective but as more of a guideline for robot designers:
Pointing out the existence of the uncanny valley was more of a piece of advice from me to people who design robots rather than a scientific statement.
Karl MacDorman, an associate professor of human-computer interaction at Indiana University who has long studied the uncanny valley, interprets the classic graph not as expressing Mori’s theory but as a heuristic for learning the concept and organizing observations.
“I believe his theory is instead expressed by his examples, which show that a mismatch in the human likeness of appearance and touch or appearance and motion can elicit a feeling of eeriness,” MacDorman says. “In my own experiments, I have consistently reproduced this effect within and across sense modalities. For example, a mismatch in the human realism of the features of a face heightens eeriness; a robot with a human voice or a human with a robotic voice is eerie.”
How to Avoid the Uncanny Valley
Unless you intend to create creepy characters or evoke a feeling of unease, you can follow certain design principles to avoid the uncanny valley. “The effect can be reduced by not creating robots or computer-animated characters that combine features on different sides of a boundary—for example, human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, or real and artificial,” MacDorman says.
To make a robot or avatar more realistic and move it beyond the valley, Tinwell says to ensure that a character’s facial expressions match its emotive tones of speech, and that its body movements are responsive and reflect its hypothetical emotional state. Special attention must also be paid to facial elements such as the forehead, eyes, and mouth, which depict the complexities of emotion and thought. “The mouth must be modeled and animated correctly so the character doesn’t appear aggressive or portray a ‘false smile’ when they should be genuinely happy,” she says.
For Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the goal is not to avoid the uncanny valley, but to avoid bad character animations or behaviors, stressing the importance of matching the appearance of a robot with its ability. “We’re trained to spot even the slightest divergence from ‘normal’ human movements or behavior,” he says. “Hence, we often fail in creating highly realistic, humanlike characters.”
But he warns that the uncanny valley appears to be more of an uncanny cliff. “We find the likability to increase and then crash once robots become humanlike,” he says. “But we have never observed them ever coming out of the valley. You fall off and that’s it.” Continue reading
Machine learning algorithms are starting to exceed human performance in many narrow and specific domains, such as image recognition and certain types of medical diagnoses. They’re also rapidly improving in more complex domains such as generating eerily human-like text. We increasingly rely on machine learning algorithms to make decisions on a wide range of topics, from what we collectively spend billions of hours watching to who gets the job.
But machine learning algorithms cannot explain the decisions they make.
How can we justify putting these systems in charge of decisions that affect people’s lives if we don’t understand how they’re arriving at those decisions?
This desire to get more than raw numbers from machine learning algorithms has led to a renewed focus on explainable AI: algorithms that can make a decision or take an action, and tell you the reasons behind it.
What Makes You Say That?
In some circumstances, you can see a road to explainable AI already. Take OpenAI’s GTP-2 model, or IBM’s Project Debater. Both of these generate text based on a large corpus of training data, and try to make it as relevant as possible to the prompt that’s given. If these models were also able to provide a quick run-down of the top few sources in that corpus of training data they were drawing information from, it may be easier to understand where the “argument” (or poetic essay about unicorns) was coming from.
This is similar to the approach Google is now looking at for its image classifiers. Many algorithms are more sensitive to textures and the relationship between adjacent pixels in an image, rather than recognizing objects by their outlines as humans do. This leads to strange results: some algorithms can happily identify a totally scrambled image of a polar bear, but not a polar bear silhouette.
Previous attempts to make image classifiers explainable relied on significance mapping. In this method, the algorithm would highlight the areas of the image that contributed the most statistical weight to making the decision. This is usually determined by changing groups of pixels in the image and seeing which contribute to the biggest change in the algorithm’s impression of what the image is. For example, if the algorithm is trying to recognize a stop sign, changing the background is unlikely to be as important as changing the sign.
Google’s new approach changes the way that its algorithm recognizes objects, by examining them at several different resolutions and searching for matches to different “sub-objects” within the main object. You or I might recognize an ambulance from its flashing lights, its tires, and its logo; we might zoom in on the basketball held by an NBA player to deduce their occupation, and so on. By linking the overall categorization of an image to these “concepts,” the algorithm can explain its decision: I categorized this as a cat because of its tail and whiskers.
Even in this experiment, though, the “psychology” of the algorithm in decision-making is counter-intuitive. For example, in the basketball case, the most important factor in making the decision was actually the player’s jerseys rather than the basketball.
Can You Explain What You Don’t Understand?
While it may seem trivial, the conflict here is a fundamental one in approaches to artificial intelligence. Namely, how far can you get with mere statistical associations between huge sets of data, and how much do you need to introduce abstract concepts for real intelligence to arise?
At one end of the spectrum, Good Old-Fashioned AI or GOFAI dreamed up machines that would be entirely based on symbolic logic. The machine would be hard-coded with the concept of a dog, a flower, cars, and so forth, alongside all of the symbolic “rules” which we internalize, allowing us to distinguish between dogs, flowers, and cars. (You can imagine a similar approach to a conversational AI would teach it words and strict grammatical structures from the top down, rather than “learning” languages from statistical associations between letters and words in training data, as GPT-2 broadly does.)
Such a system would be able to explain itself, because it would deal in high-level, human-understandable concepts. The equation is closer to: “ball” + “stitches” + “white” = “baseball”, rather than a set of millions of numbers linking various pathways together. There are elements of GOFAI in Google’s new approach to explaining its image recognition: the new algorithm can recognize objects based on the sub-objects they contain. To do this, it requires at least a rudimentary understanding of what those sub-objects look like, and the rules that link objects to sub-objects, such as “cats have whiskers.”
The issue, of course, is the—maybe impossible—labor-intensive task of defining all these symbolic concepts and every conceivable rule that could possibly link them together by hand. The difficulty of creating systems like this, which could handle the “combinatorial explosion” present in reality, helped to lead to the first AI winter.
Meanwhile, neural networks rely on training themselves on vast sets of data. Without the “labeling” of supervised learning, this process might bear no relation to any concepts a human could understand (and therefore be utterly inexplicable).
Somewhere between these two, hope explainable AI enthusiasts, is a happy medium that can crunch colossal amounts of data, giving us all of the benefits that recent, neural-network AI has bestowed, while showing its working in terms that humans can understand.
Image Credit: Image by Seanbatty from Pixabay Continue reading
Illustration: Nicholas Little
Let’s face it: Robots are dumb. At best they are idiot savants, capable of doing one thing really well. In general, even those robots require specialized environments in which to do their one thing really well. This is why autonomous cars or robots for home health care are so difficult to build. They’ll need to react to an uncountable number of situations, and they’ll need a generalized understanding of the world in order to navigate them all.
Babies as young as two months already understand that an unsupported object will fall, while five-month-old babies know materials like sand and water will pour from a container rather than plop out as a single chunk. Robots lack these understandings, which hinders them as they try to navigate the world without a prescribed task and movement.
But we could see robots with a generalized understanding of the world (and the processing power required to wield it) thanks to the video-game industry. Researchers are bringing physics engines—the software that provides real-time physical interactions in complex video-game worlds—to robotics. The goal is to develop robots’ understanding in order to learn about the world in the same way babies do.
Giving robots a baby’s sense of physics helps them navigate the real world and can even save on computing power, according to Lochlainn Wilson, the CEO of SE4, a Japanese company building robots that could operate on Mars. SE4 plans to avoid the problems of latency caused by distance from Earth to Mars by building robots that can operate independently for a few hours before receiving more instructions from Earth.
Wilson says that his company uses simple physics engines such as PhysX to help build more-independent robots. He adds that if you can tie a physics engine to a coprocessor on the robot, the real-time basic physics intuitions won’t take compute cycles away from the robot’s primary processor, which will often be focused on a more complicated task.
Wilson’s firm occasionally still turns to a traditional graphics engine, such as Unity or the Unreal Engine, to handle the demands of a robot’s movement. In certain cases, however, such as a robot accounting for friction or understanding force, you really need a robust physics engine, Wilson says, not a graphics engine that simply simulates a virtual environment. For his projects, he often turns to the open-source Bullet Physics engine built by Erwin Coumans, who is now an employee at Google.
Bullet is a popular physics-engine option, but it isn’t the only one out there. Nvidia Corp., for example, has realized that its gaming and physics engines are well-placed to handle the computing demands required by robots. In a lab in Seattle, Nvidia is working with teams from the University of Washington to build kitchen robots, fully articulated robot hands and more, all equipped with Nvidia’s tech.
When I visited the lab, I watched a robot arm move boxes of food from counters to cabinets. That’s fairly straightforward, but that same robot arm could avoid my body if I got in its way, and it could adapt if I moved a box of food or dropped it onto the floor.
The robot could also understand that less pressure is needed to grasp something like a cardboard box of Cheez-It crackers versus something more durable like an aluminum can of tomato soup.
Nvidia’s silicon has already helped advance the fields of artificial intelligence and computer vision by making it possible to process multiple decisions in parallel. It’s possible that the company’s new focus on virtual worlds will help advance the field of robotics and teach robots to think like babies.
This article appears in the November 2019 print issue as “Robots as Smart as Babies.” Continue reading
People surf it. Spiders crawl it. Gophers navigate it.
Now, a leading group of cognitive biologists and computer scientists want to make the tools of the Internet accessible to the rest of the animal kingdom.
Dubbed the Interspecies Internet, the project aims to provide intelligent animals such as elephants, dolphins, magpies, and great apes with a means to communicate among each other and with people online.
And through artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other digital technologies, researchers hope to crack the code of all the chirps, yips, growls, and whistles that underpin animal communication.
Oh, and musician Peter Gabriel is involved.
“We can use data analysis and technology tools to give non-humans a lot more choice and control,” the former Genesis frontman, dressed in his signature Nehru-style collar shirt and loose, open waistcoat, told IEEE Spectrum at the inaugural Interspecies Internet Workshop, held Monday in Cambridge, Mass. “This will be integral to changing our relationship with the natural world.”
The workshop was a long time in the making.
Eighteen years ago, Gabriel visited a primate research center in Atlanta, Georgia, where he jammed with two bonobos, a male named Kanzi and his half-sister Panbanisha. It was the first time either bonobo had sat at a piano before, and both displayed an exquisite sense of musical timing and melody.
Gabriel seemed to be speaking to the great apes through his synthesizer. It was a shock to the man who once sang “Shock the Monkey.”
“It blew me away,” he says.
Add in the bonobos’ ability to communicate by pointing to abstract symbols, Gabriel notes, and “you’d have to be deaf, dumb, and very blind not to notice language being used.”
Gabriel eventually teamed up with Internet protocol co-inventor Vint Cerf, cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss, and IoT pioneer Neil Gershenfeld to propose building an Interspecies Internet. Presented in a 2013 TED Talk as an “idea in progress,” the concept proved to be ahead of the technology.
“It wasn’t ready,” says Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. “It needed to incubate.”
So, for the past six years, the architects of the Dolittlesque initiative embarked on two small pilot projects, one for dolphins and one for chimpanzees.
At her Hunter College lab in New York City, Reiss developed what she calls the D-Pad—a touchpad for dolphins.
Reiss had been trying for years to create an underwater touchscreen with which to probe the cognition and communication skills of bottlenose dolphins. But “it was a nightmare coming up with something that was dolphin-safe and would work,” she says.
Her first attempt emitted too much heat. A Wii-like system of gesture recognition proved too difficult to install in the dolphin tanks.
Eventually, she joined forces with Rockefeller University biophysicist Marcelo Magnasco and invented an optical detection system in which images and infrared sensors are projected through an underwater viewing window onto a glass panel, allowing the dolphins to play specially designed apps, including one dubbed Whack-a-Fish.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Gabriel worked with Alison Cronin, director of the ape rescue center Monkey World, to test the feasibility of using FaceTime with chimpanzees.
The chimps engaged with the technology, Cronin reported at this week’s workshop. However, our hominid cousins proved as adept at videotelephonic discourse as my three-year-old son is at video chatting with his grandparents—which is to say, there was a lot of pass-the-banana-through-the-screen and other silly games, and not much meaningful conversation.
“We can use data analysis and technology tools to give non-humans a lot more choice and control.”
The buggy, rudimentary attempt at interspecies online communication—what Cronin calls her “Max Headroom experiment”—shows that building the Interspecies Internet will not be as simple as giving out Skype-enabled tablets to smart animals.
“There are all sorts of problems with creating a human-centered experience for another animal,” says Gabriel Miller, director of research and development at the San Diego Zoo.
Miller has been working on animal-focused sensory tools such as an “Elephone” (for elephants) and a “Joybranch” (for birds), but it’s not easy to design efficient interactive systems for other creatures—and for the Interspecies Internet to be successful, Miller points out, “that will be super-foundational.”
Researchers are making progress on natural language processing of animal tongues. Through a non-profit organization called the Earth Species Project, former Firefox designer Aza Raskin and early Twitter engineer Britt Selvitelle are applying deep learning algorithms developed for unsupervised machine translation of human languages to fashion a Rosetta Stone–like tool capable of interpreting the vocalizations of whales, primates, and other animals.
Inspired by the scientists who first documented the complex sonic arrangements of humpback whales in the 1960s—a discovery that ushered in the modern marine conservation movement—Selvitelle hopes that an AI-powered animal translator can have a similar effect on environmentalism today.
“A lot of shifts happen when someone who doesn’t have a voice gains a voice,” he says.
A challenge with this sort of AI software remains verification and validation. Normally, machine-learning algorithms are benchmarked against a human expert, but who is to say if a cybernetic translation of a sperm whale’s clicks is accurate or not?
One could back-translate an English expression into sperm whale-ese and then into English again. But with the great apes, there might be a better option.
According to primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, expertly trained bonobos could serve as bilingual interpreters, translating the argot of apes into the parlance of people, and vice versa.
Not just any trained ape will do, though. They have to grow up in a mixed Pan/Homo environment, as Kanzi and Panbanisha were.
“If I can have a chat with a cow, maybe I can have more compassion for it.”
Those bonobos were raised effectively from birth both by Savage-Rumbaugh, who taught the animals to understand spoken English and to communicate via hundreds of different pictographic “lexigrams,” and a bonobo mother named Matata that had lived for six years in the Congolese rainforests before her capture.
Unlike all other research primates—which are brought into captivity as infants, reared by human caretakers, and have limited exposure to their natural cultures or languages—those apes thus grew up fluent in both bonobo and human.
Panbanisha died in 2012, but Kanzi, aged 38, is still going strong, living at an ape sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa. Researchers continue to study his cognitive abilities—Francine Dolins, a primatologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, is running one study in which Kanzi and other apes hunt rabbits and forage for fruit through avatars on a touchscreen. Kanzi could, in theory, be recruited to check the accuracy of any Google Translate–like app for bonobo hoots, barks, grunts, and cries.
Alternatively, Kanzi could simply provide Internet-based interpreting services for our two species. He’s already proficient at video chatting with humans, notes Emily Walco, a PhD student at Harvard University who has personally Skyped with Kanzi. “He was super into it,” Walco says.
And if wild bonobos in Central Africa can be coaxed to gather around a computer screen, Savage-Rumbaugh is confident Kanzi could communicate with them that way. “It can all be put together,” she says. “We can have an Interspecies Internet.”
“Both the technology and the knowledge had to advance,” Savage-Rumbaugh notes. However, now, “the techniques that we learned could really be extended to a cow or a pig.”
That’s music to the ears of Jeremy Coller, a private equity specialist whose foundation partially funded the Interspecies Internet Workshop. Coller is passionate about animal welfare and has devoted much of his philanthropic efforts toward the goal of ending factory farming.
At the workshop, his foundation announced the creation of the Coller Doolittle Prize, a US $100,000 award to help fund further research related to the Interspecies Internet. (A working group also formed to synthesize plans for the emerging field, to facilitate future event planning, and to guide testing of shared technology platforms.)
Why would a multi-millionaire with no background in digital communication systems or cognitive psychology research want to back the initiative? For Coller, the motivation boils to interspecies empathy.
“If I can have a chat with a cow,” he says, “maybe I can have more compassion for it.”
An abridged version of this post appears in the September 2019 print issue as “Elephants, Dolphins, and Chimps Need the Internet, Too.” Continue reading