Top VFX Company Attempts to Bridge Uncanny Valley, Fails

Gif: Digital Domain/YouTube

Well, this is horrifying.

One of the foremost VFX companies on the planet, Digital Domain—the outfit behind some of the biggest effects in films in recent decades, including Titanic, Avengers: Infinity War, and Deadpool—has unveiled a new “realistic real-time autonomous digital human,” which it calls “Douglas.” Douglas, which will head to market next year, is being framed as a solution for more humanlike and photorealistic virtual assistants and chatbots, a logical next step in the progression of AI technology and its everyday applications.

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Based on the likeness of the company’s senior director of software R&D, Doug Roble, Douglas certainly looks like something close to a human form being beamed to you over a poorly connected Zoom call. Douglas uses a mix of proprietary R&D as well as machine learning to mimic human gestures and responses, engage fully in conversation, and, apparently, remember new people to whom it’s introduced. But it’s once Douglas starts talking that we fully veer into Uncanny Valley—a fact that isn’t helped by the company’s description of Douglas as being “chameleon-like in its ability to switch faces.” Shudder.

But please, do not just take my word for it. Behold Douglas for yourself, shown below in a video conference with the real Doug (the bot is the one doing unnatural twitching and word sounds):

Also, the hands.

“Everywhere you look you see virtual assistants, chatbots and other forms of AI-based communication interacting with people,” Darren Hendler, director of Digital Humans Group at Digital Domain, said in a statement. “As companies decide to expand past voice-only interactions, there’s going to be a real need for photorealistic humans that behave in the ways we expect them to. That’s where Douglas comes in.”

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Listen, I’m not even especially opposed to an AI future with photorealistic bots with Her-level responsiveness and conversation capabilities. But Douglas walks a thin line between being an exciting technological advancement in photorealism and AI and the hyper-intelligent hellbot from your worst nightmares. Personally, I’m mentally filing this one to my “no, thank you” folder.

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DISCUSSION

Can’t help but feel like it looks more like Max Headroom than advanced AI: