Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Ishiguro's Daughter

Humanists well know the story of Milton's daughter, the woman who served as facilitator to her father the blind poet and a conduit of literacy for his visions of heaven and hell. But perhaps it is also instructive to know the story of Ishiguro's daughter, who served as both a model and a critic of her father the roboticist's work.

In addition to introducing me to the story of Ishiguro's daughter, SIGGRAPH's panel on the concept of the "uncanny valley" presented a number of theoretically interesting issues about the sometimes uneasy audience responses to extremely accurate simulations of human beings in the construction of androids and the creation of life-like digital animation. This phenomena was first described by roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970 who hypothesized that this feature in the psychic geography of social humans might exist as a kind of revulsion to too perfect an imitation of human form and movement. To introduce the subject, organizer Jessica Hodgins of Carnegie Mellon University showed a chart with zombies, corpses, prosthetic hands, Michael Jackson, and bunraku puppets as possible examplars for these liminal experiences of the uncanny.

Of course, I loved the idea that knowledge of the norms of prosody was one of needed research areas for this brave new world and that consequently my M.F.A. degree in which I devoted three years of my life to the subject of speech rhythm wasn't entirely time wasted from my youth. But otherwise there was a lot of disquieting material in the talk by Karl F. MacDorman, who studied attractiveness in androids in ways that justified certain repressive norms in which evolutionary aesthetics was used to explain a supposedly biologically pre-determined preference found in the studies he cited for "large breasts and narrow waists" in women and "very masculine faces" in men. Furthermore, given how much standards for beauty have changed over time, this emphasis on nature rather than culture seems a questionable. After all, in Chaucer's time, gap-toothed and gray-eyed represented the feminine ideal.

The existence of these studies also makes one wonder about the spending of time and research dollars merely to affirm the self-evident existence of sexist stereotypes rather than to undertake the more challenging task of ascertaining the methods that might be most effective to change the status quo. Particularly when the quest for unattainable physical attractiveness is very costly to our society and contributes to a number of public health and fiscal responsibility problems, I'm not sure how I feel about attractiveness research, particularly when the very worst examples produces results that blame the victim and potentially support discriminating against flat-chested women (or busty ones) in the workplace.

After MacDorman's talk, it was interesting to hear a member of the audience query what generated empathy for non-human agents, which MacDorman had apparently not considered, even though it was central to successful story-telling.

After some interesting brain studies by Thierry Chaminade, which showed how the mirror system could be activated by seeing an action performed by someone else and how responses to anthropomorphism could be neurologically distinct from those associated with attributions of mind to sentient others, the session closed with Joe Letteri of WETA digital who argued that the uncanny valley should be sought out for its dramatic potential rather than avoided through more comfortable forms of entertainment. Letteri showed the corpse of Boromir rendered in silicon that was used in The Lord of the Rings (reproduced above) as a totem of their artistic endeavors. He also showed footage from Andy Zerkis's extraordinary original performance as Golem in the film, some of which I felt was lost in its recreation of covetous passion in the digital avatar that substituted for the live actor.

Update: Professor MacDorman has pointed out some inaccuracies in the link to the Ishiguro's daughter material in the girl's age and developmental psychology. He also rebuts the charge of biological determinism in his research and points to a conference presentation here.

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