That David Byrne, always with the being so smart. Aside from writing albums better than you will ever write, the man has deeper thoughts about the nature of emotional conveyance than you will ever think. Also he’s such a good bike rider. Truly a renaissance man. The latest dispatch from the infinite well of Byrnian mindstuffs is the Voice Of Julio project, which he dreamed up with robotics artist David Hanson, and is debuting at the Museo de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid at the end of this month as part of the show entitled “Machines and Souls: Digital Art.” Put simply, the Davids teamed up to create a robot that sings with Byrne’s voice and human expressions. Of course David doesn’t put it so simply. First, check out the Byrne-droid in action:
Creeped out? Me neither. Maybe that’s because we weren’t in Julio the robot’s physical company; apparently it locks onto your presence and follows you with its eyes, like it’s looking at you. The entire experience is meant to lead you into “uncanny valley,” a philosophical term coined by Japanese roboticist (David says that’s a word, so I’m using it) Masahiro Mori (via Byrneblog):
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.
In order to make it as believable an experience as possible, David deconstructed what humans respond to in a singer performing live…
What we call singing is not just the vibrating of the vocal chords and the mouth moving to create the proper syllables and timbres; it’s also tied to a host of emotions that play across the muscles and tissues of the face and neck. The movements of these muscles, the facial expressions, give us clues as to what the singer is feeling, what the singer intends to communicate and what the song means.
Of course, a large percentage of this meaning is in the song itself–the sound and lyrics–but one of the reasons we enjoy a live performance is that we are given (visual) bonus features, clues that give us additional information about the singer, the song and about our immediate situation.
…and asked Hinson to replicate it. Now comes the food for thought:
So–if an entity displays the correct facial expressions, sounds and gestures, who’s to say it’s not “experiencing” the emotions? I personally still think it’s not, as emotions trigger hormonal release, breathing changes and a whole range of other physiological changes, and they’re not simply limited to what we see. They imply future action or inaction–they imply a set of behaviors guided and steered by the emotions we only see displayed in the face and voice. I love that Julio might make us confront some of these issues–that his emotional singing might give us a discomforting pause.
Knowing that singing elicits an emotional reaction from a listener and observer, I sense that encountering Julio might push some very odd buttons.
I was going to make some joke about how Byrne guaranteed there would be the pushing of odd buttons by putting the power knob where Julio’s joystick would be, but that obviously would have been a transparent and juvenile attempt to diffuse the reality that this is a man smarter than I could ever hope to be. So I won’t make that joke. Even if, in all honesty, Julio kept me far from Uncanny Valley, and closer to David Sounds Great Even As A Robot Valley. Bless this guy and his restless mind, you know? So anyway, this is the project’s official page. Take a look. If you’re in Spain, let us know how deeply you resent the robot’s approximation of humanity while there in person. Also don’t forget you can still play his building, and there just aren’t many people you can say that about.