February 14, 2017
In recent years, pop culture has been flooded with depictions of realistic androids. Films like Ex Machina and Her along with the hit HBO series Westworld showcase a future where androids and technology have become so realistic that humans begin to develop complex, nuanced relationships with them. These films and shows blur the line between what is alive, what has consciousness, and what is a valid response to these “beings.” In many instances, the narratives involve a human becoming emotionally invested or even in love with a seemingly alive yet certainly artificial device.
Science fiction is an enduring and relevant genre of fiction, because it often shines a light on where technology and society is headed. Are we walking down a path towards Westworld? Last spring the University of Science and Technology of China unveiled the most realistic android to date, Jia Jia, and she offers a stark reminder of how far robotics have come.
Jia Jia, The Robot Goddess
Making an android look human has never really been the problem. Special effects artists in the film industry have been making realistic props for decades. The challenge is to create an android that actually seems alive. Jia Jia is by no means the first to be designed to mimic human mannerisms, but many before her have been stilted by a few factors. Some androids struggle to sync their lip movements with their speech or have stiff and unnatural-looking motor functions. As humans, we’ve developed sophisticated methods of reading the facial expressions and body language of other humans to help us function as a society. If an android is off by just a little bit, it looks peculiar, and as such, no realistic android has come very close to fooling us.
Jia Jia is different. She’s not perfect, but she represents a major step forward in the field of robotics.
- Natural Eye Movement: Jia Jia moves her eyes as she speaks in a more natural way. Other androids can appear dead-eyed and give the impression that they are not actually looking at you. Jia Jia looks you right in the eye.
- Lip Syncing: It sounds like a given, but syncing lip movements with speech while also enabling the android to respond in conversation in real time is a big challenge. Jia Jia’s eyes, lips, and voice work in unison to increase the realism. Jia Jia can also speak both Mandarin and English.
- Microexpressions: The human face is a tricky thing to mimic. Sure, we have expressions for happy, sad, curious, confused, and so on, but these expressions don’t work as if they were “facial modes” in real life. Facial expressions are on a spectrum, and Jia Jia is able to make the tiny twinges of the face that more closely represent how humans express themselves.
- Brain and Speech: Jia Jia is actually an android in the cloud. Her brain is connected to a large cloud database from which she draws her speech pattern and responses. In an economics expo in China, Jia Jia was able to hold simple conversations with guests, identify their gender, and even accurately relay weather conditions outside. It’s unlikely that Jia Jia could pass the Turing Test of robotics, but her ability to understand and respond are impressive none-the-less.
Not the Ideal Valentine’s Date
Though Westworld, Her, and Ex Machina revolve around humans developing deep emotional connections with androids, Jia Jia would make a poor valentine’s day date. For all her impressive attributes and advances, she’s still a long way away from fooling us into thinking she’s alive. There are a million subtle variations in the way we all act, and replicating them in an android will take time.
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For Further Reading
Realistic androids are only one corner of the larger robotics field. The DaVinci surgical system is a machine that allows a surgeon to perform an operation remotely. Whether from across the room or across the country, the DaVinci surgical system offers a steadier hand and more precise control of the operation.