Tuesday, July 01, 2008

David Byrne's singing robot

David Byrne has collaborated with David Hanson, the guy who made the Philip K. Dick robot at NextFest in 2005, to make a robot named Julio that sings, for a show titled "Machines and Souls: Digital Art" at the Museo de Arta Reina Sofia in Madrid.

Byrne writes:
I love where this is going. It brings to mind an image of someone sitting in a comfortable chair, maybe with friends, and maybe they’re having drinks—and at the same time Jentsch posits that layered over or under this image is the profoundly creepy, the deeply strange and disturbing. We’re in the land of David Lynch and Hitchcock. ET landing in the familiar U.S. suburbs could be viewed this way, or the various living dead and vampire movies.

More recently Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori proposed the existence of something called the uncanny valley. This “valley” is an area of emotional uncertainty and often revulsion experienced by an observer when a robot or computer animation (for example) approaches being human, is almost believable, but not quite.

He suggests that our emotional empathy with animations and robots increases as they get closer and closer to being human (or animal)—but then, at a certain point, they fall into the valley, and our empathy turns to disgust. In his view they switch from being a cute thing approaching humanity to a bad or faulty version of humanity. It is at this point that we see them as not merely slightly strange, but as a human with serious problems. If the creation can succeed in being a little bit better as a believable creature the feeling of revulsion disappears. For some viewers, recent films like Beowulf fall into this valley, while others find the almost humans acceptable.

Mori further suggests that this reaction might be innate—that it might be linked to our biological reactions to people who are physically or mentally ill—or to corpses. Evolution would have ingrained this reaction as a way of weeding out sick people from the social group. Hanson and others dispute the scientific veracity of the uncanny valley, but I think no one can doubt the strange and weird emotions that well up when confronted by one of these entities.

The point about disgust brings to mind Antonio Damasio's work on emotions, as well as Pascal Boyer's comments about religious rituals for corpse disposal in Religion Explained.

In a subsequent post, as Julio nears completion, Byrne writes:
Like many animals, humans sing for pleasure, for sex, for attention, to express pain, to relieve angst and to join and participate in a social group. All of these urges seem, if not uniquely human, at least not at all machine like. To see machines mimic these aspects of human life, is to watch some part of our imagined souls being appropriated.
To see and hear video of Julio singing, check out Byrne's blog. The show "Máquinas y Almas: Arte digital" ("Machines and Souls: Digital Art") opened on June 25.


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