Thanks to companies like Boston Dynamics, we now have robots that can climb stairs, run parkour, and even perform backflips. But dragging robots out of the uncanny valley and making automatons indistinguishable from humans is going to be an infinitely more challenging feat if Cleo, a robot engineered with human-like expressive movements, is any indication.
Peel back its outer layer of artificial skin (we know, it only adds to the creep factor) and Cleo is actually a fairly sophisticated robot underneath built on the Mesmer platform developed by Engineered Arts, a company that designs and builds automatons destined for amusement park attractions. Boston Dynamics’ Atlas is definitely more impressive, but there’s a reason the company hasn’t put a price tag on it yet.
Cleo’s movements are facilitated by multiple joints in the arms, wrist, and neck, and five rotations in each shoulder that allow the robot to perform subtle body-language gestures like a simple shoulder shrug, Compared to the audio-animatronic characters Disney developed decades ago for its amusement parks, Cleo’s smooth motions are incredibly human-like.
Where things get problematic is when that fake skin is re-applied and Cleo is programmed to recreate the expressive performances of singers like Celine Dion, who use the movements of their hands and arms to convey emotion as much as their voice.
The results are about as uncanny valley as robots can get, but a big part of the problem is Cleo’s face and the artificial skin that struggles to move and flex convincingly to convey any emotion but terror. As Disney’s researchers demonstrated last year, there’s so much more to creating a realistic fake human than just a moving mouth and eyes.
There are layers and layers of subtle movements and motions that make another human face look real, which we don’t consciously realise are they’re. missing, as with robots like Cleo. There are small movements from breathing, gentle adjustments made by the body while it’s balancing on two feet, and even constant corrections made by the eyes as a person you’re talking to is changing focus and studying your own face. And we’re years away from making a robotic face that’s complex enough to recreate that symphony of tiny movements to fool the human brain.
The problem is a big reason why you see companies like Disney with theme parks around the world moving away from animatronics based on human characters (think Pirates of the Caribbean) and instead focusing efforts on bringing cartoon characters into the real world through robotics. The new Beauty and the Beast ride at Tokyo Disneyland looks so impressive because it’s bringing to life 2D characters who aren’t really very human-like to begin with.
Disney’s animators focus on exaggerated expressions and emotions, not the subtle stuff. We’re not expecting a robotic Belle to look perfectly human, which is why seeing her in motion is impressive. The bar Cleo is aiming for is much, much higher, and as technically impressive as the robot is, the results are unsettling. The robots aren’t coming for Celine Dion’s job any time soon.