Welcome to the uncanny valley: This robot head shows lifelike expressions

You only have to look at the number of research labs and companies developing artificial skin, machine muscles, and, err, sex robots to realize that robots are becoming increasingly lifelike in their appearance. Even with that background, however, we weren’t quite prepared for SEER (short for “Simulative Emotional Expression Robot”), the lifelike robotic head shown off recently at SIGGRAPH 2018. Created by Japanese artist Takayuki Todo, SEER is a machine that is capable of recognizing the facial expressions of people it interacts with and then mirroring that same expression back at them.

Of course, facial recognition technology is nothing new. It is something a lot of us take for granted, considering that it’s now baked into many smartphones like the iPhone X as a substitute for the four-figure passcodes we previously used to unlock our phones. However, Todo uses the technology to stunning effect in a way that makes it feel as though SEER is almost a living being. It’s a great example of the uncanny valley: The phenomenon first identified in 1970 by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori. Mori noted how more humanoid robots could inspire emotions like empathy in onlookers, although this risks tipping over into revulsion when it’s not executed correctly. That makes SEER even more impressive, since the human brain is particularly good at identifying when an artificial face isn’t quite right. (Think about all the people who were freaked out by the CGI characters in Robert Zemeckis’ 2004 movie The Polar Express.)

At present, SEER is limited to being an art project or a fancy tech demo. But it’s easy to imagine this technology being used in future robots — whether it’s to give them more lifelike features to make the experience of our working alongside them more comfortable or to create embodied virtual assistants, capable of mirroring back our emotions to enhance trust and affection.

In an email, SEER creator Takayuki Todo told Digital Trends that he is continuing to develop the project, and plans to show SEER at various festivals and exhibitions around the world. We are excited to see what he has in store going forward.

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