People get up to weird things in New Zealand. At the University of Auckland, if you want to run hours upon hours of experiments on a baby trapped in a high chair, that’s cool. You can even have a conversation with her surprisingly chatty disembodied head.
BabyX, the virtual creation of Mark Sagar and his researchers, looks impossibly real. The child, a 3D digital rendering based on images of Sagar’s daughter at 18 months, has rosy cheeks, warm eyes, a full head of blond hair, and a soft, sweet voice. When I visited the computer scientist’s lab last year, BabyX was stuck inside a computer but could still see me sitting in front of the screen with her “father.” To get her attention, we’d call out, “Hi, baby. Look at me, baby,” and wave our hands. When her gaze locked onto our faces, we’d hold up a book filled with words (such as “apple” or “ball”) and pictures (sheep, clocks), then ask BabyX to read the words and identify the objects. When she got an answer right, we praised her, and she smiled with confidence. When she got one wrong, chiding her would turn her teary and sullen.
If it sounds odd to encounter a virtual child that can read words from a book, it’s much more disorienting to feel a sense of fatherly pride after she nails a bunch in a row and lights up with what appears to be authentic joy. BabyX and I seemed to be having a moment, learning from each other while trading expressions and subtle cues so familiar to the human experience. That’s the feeling Sagar is after with his research and his new company Soul Machines Ltd.
The term “artificial intelligence” has become a catchall for impersonal, mysterious calculations performed behind closed doors. Huge farms of computers crank away at piles of data, using statistics to analyze our internet history, driving habits, and speech to produce targeted ads, better maps, and Apple Inc.’s Siri. This sense of AI as an amorphous shadow falling over more and more of our lives has left people from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk skeptical of the technology, which tends to feel unnatural, somehow less than real.
Sagar is a leading figure in the camp trying to humanize AI, which he says has the potential to yield a more symbiotic relationship between humans and machines. While he wasn’t the first to this idea, his approach is unique, a synthesis of his early years as a computer scientist and later ones in the world of Hollywood special effects. The face, he’s concluded, is the key to barreling through the uncanny valley and making virtual beings feel truly lifelike. Soul Machines’ creations are unparalleled in this respect, able to wince and grin with musculature and features that move shockingly like ours. They have human voices, too, and are already contracted for use as online helpers for companies ranging from insurance providers to airlines. Soul Machines wants to produce the first wave of likable, believable virtual assistants that work as customer service agents and breathe life into hunks of plastic such as Amazon.com’s Echo and Google Inc.’s Home.
Source: Soul Machines
Companies with similar aspirations throughout Japan and the U.S. have produced a wide array of virtual avatars, assistants, and holograms. Many of the people behind these projects say AI systems and robots can achieve their full potential only if they become more humanlike. They need to have memories, the thinking goes, plus something resembling emotions, to propel them to seek out their own experiences.
Sagar’s approach on this front may be his most radical contribution to the field. Behind the exquisite faces he builds are unprecedented biological models and simulations. When BabyX smiles, it’s because her simulated brain has responded to stimuli by releasing a cocktail of virtual dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin into her system. This is part of Sagar’s larger quest, using AI to reverse-engineer how humans work. He wants to get to the roots of emotion, desire, and thought and impart the lessons to computers and robots, making them more like us.
“Since my 20s, I’ve had these thoughts of can a computer become intelligent, can it have consciousness, burning in my mind,” he says. “We want to build a system that not only learns for itself but that is motivated to learn and motivated to interact with the world. And so I set out with this crazy goal of trying to build a computational model of human consciousness.”
Here’s what should really freak you out: He’s getting there a lot quicker than anybody would have thought. Since last year, BabyX has, among other things, sprouted a body and learned to play the piano. They grow up so fast.