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Stelarc’s head and the Uncanny Valley

“What figures of the human are materialized in these technologies? What are the circumstances through which machines can be claimed, or experienced, as humanlike? And what do those claims and encounters tell us about the particular cultural imaginaries that inform these technoscience initiatives, and how they might be otherwise? “ – Lucy Suchmann, ‘Human-machine reconfigurations: Plans and situated actions.’

Today we were introduced to the work of artist Stelarc. His work “Head” is an animatronic robot modelled on the artist’s own and featuring a relatively simple chatbot style AI that enables a user to ask it questions and converse with it. This artwork is an example of Figurative AI and with it Stelarc is challenging notions of consciousness, mind, and intelligence, and the idea of a “mysterious interiority”.

We were shown a video in which a reporter speaks with the head, under guidance from the artist who is standing close by. The head is programmed to have set responses to various questions and in responding it occasionally responds with answers that seem insightful.

However, to me the film only gets interesting when there is a malfunction in the hardware. The pressure sensor that detects the human participant is not working properly, and as a result the head keeps restarting. In human-relatable terms it seems as though the AI is rude and keeps not listening, and trying to start new topics of conversation itself.

Is this an example of “mysterious interiority?” as the artist is attempting to assert? In my opinion it falls short of this, and instead falls into the Uncanny Valley. It’s a common criticism of animation in film and TV when the VFX fails to realistically convey a believable human. It’s the reason why companies that make money off telling emotive animated stories so rarely attempt to use realistic CG characters and instead stylise them (Pixar, Disney, Studio Ghibli).

Humans are happy to anthropomorphise and are delighted when non-human objects display a level of intelligence that borders on empathy. It’s common to hear people describe old technology (be it a mobile phone, a car, a computer) with a nostalgic refrain “it just does what I want it to”. I think it also helps when the user or participant can see “behind the curtain” of a technological artefact. The more you know about how the artefact came to be the more you can empathise with the result.

Going back to Stelarc’s head – would she have had as interesting an interaction with the robot if the Artist wasn’t actually there guiding her into generating the best inputs to gain an interesting response?