By Lauren Davis
If you happened to venture to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid this summer, you may have come across Julio, a robot who sings in the voice of former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne while mimicking the facial expressions of a human crooner. Byrne has chronicled the process of conceiving and creating Julio on his blog, where he also discusses the significance of imitative robots, the uncanny valley, and machines and the soul. Click through for Byrne's thoughts and a video of the vaguely creepy automaton. Julio was constructed by David Hanson, who is perhaps best known for his robotic portrait of Philip K. Dick. When Byrne decided to participate in the museum's "Machines and Souls" show, he wanted to work with Hanson because of the lifelike nature of its work:
Hanson's robots flirt with the uncanny and test our notions of what it means to be human. They have rubbery flesh made of what he calls frubber, with tiny wires on the inside that pull the "skin" to mimic human facial expressions (to an extent). Some of them can also make eye contact and some can carry on a weird dialogue, adding to their profoundly disturbing nature. Part of what makes this human likeness so creepy is our instinctive desire to empathize with the robots and to ascribe to their behavior human motivations and even emotions.
Byrne and Hanson decided to collaborate a singing robot whose bodily movements and facial expressions would emulate that of a human engaged in the same activity. Music is certainly Byrne's medium, but he believes that a singing robot is especially surprising:
We often assume that singing is "from the heart" - or at least some part of it is. I myself believe that it is and it isn't: it's both a developed skill (to emote convincingly), and a true outpouring of emotion, as the physiological effect of singing is by nature more connected to the lizard brain than to the rationalizing frontal lobes. The fact that singing can engage both parts of the brain makes it maybe the least likely thing one would expect a robot to do.
Byrne further explains that the idea stemmed from his interest in roboticist Masahiro Mori's theory of the "uncanny valley," that point at which a robot is so human but at the same time so inhuman that viewers find it repulsive:
Knowing that singing elicits an emotional reaction from a listener and observer, I sense that encountering Julio might push some very odd buttons. I remember that my first encounter with Hanson's robot made me rethink what it means to see, to look. We think of seeing and looking as something optical, something the eyes do. But actually seeing something, and recognizing it, is a lot more than that-it is the act of "naming" the thing the eyes are locking on to. It involves other meta brain functions that often have nothing to do with optics or the muscles controlling the eye. If seeing were just the visual and eye-muscle behavior, then isn't that the same as what Julio does? And then isn't singing, and displaying the attendant emotions, the same as what Julio does?
And the end result is certainly discomforting.