AI Feature

Uncanny Artificial Humans

One of the most attention-grabbing displays at CES 2018 is “Joel,” a body inside a vacuum-sealed plastic bag, curled up in the fetal position and peacefully waiting for a consciousness.

One of the most attention-grabbing displays at CES 2018 is “Joel,” a body inside a vacuum-sealed plastic bag, curled up in the fetal position and peacefully waiting for a consciousness. Joel was built by biotech company PsychSec, which can implant a digitized version of a human’s genes, emotions, and memories into the vessel via a special cortical stack implant. Voila! You’ve swapped your tired old body for a new one and now you’re standing six-foot-two and with eight-pack abs.

You’ve probably never heard of “PsychSec,” and neither had we. Because it’s fake. And poor Joel is merely a prop in an advertising campaign promoting the upcoming Netflix series Altered Carbon, based on Richard K. Morgan’s sci-fi novel.

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The fact that it’s a publicity stunt has not, however, stopped the crowds from eyeballing Joel and additional PsychSec mannequins. The android bodies are disturbingly realistic, pulling viewers into the eeriness of the uncanny valley.

Reaction to the Netflix marketing scheme drives home the point that looks matter. Many if not most humans are more fascinated by humanoid robots than they are by the actual AI that may or may not reside inside them.

One of the world’s best-known humanoid bots is Hanson Robotics’ Sophia, who made her first public appearance in 2016, and walked for the first time at CES this week thanks to an upgraded DRC-HUBO body developed in partnership with Rainbow Robotics and Drones and Autonomous Systems Lab.

Sophia returns millions of Google search results, and became a Saudi Arabian citizen in October 2017. Attractive and witty, the bot is a worldwide media darling — her appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon attracted close to eight million viewers. Many in the general public take Sophia very seriously, one YouTube user warning, “she must be stopped before she gets out of hand…”

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While Sophia certainly makes a good story, the assessment from AI researchers has been less enthusiastic, with many holding the opinion that Sophia’s interview responses are scripted. Yann LeCun in particular does not like all the attention Sophia is getting. Earlier this month the Facebook AI Director open fired on Twitter: “[Sophia] is to AI as prestidigitation is to real magic. Perhaps we should call this “Cargo Cult AI” or “Potemkin AI” or “Wizard-of-Oz AI”. In other words, it’s complete bullsh*t (pardon my French).”

Naturally a scientist would want to peek under the hood and check out what’s powering such androids. Still, although it’s easy to dismiss the algorithm’s sophistication or lack thereof, it’s hard not to look.

Professor Manuela Veloso of Carnegie Mellon University, who has been working on robotics for decades, believes this obsession with humanoid bots is misplaced. “Robots should stay like robots. You don’t make a fridge look like a human. I care about whether they work autonomously, not how they look.”

Try telling that to all the people jostling for a glimpse of Joel.


Journalist: Meghan Han | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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