Robot Begs to be Allowed to Live – Don’t Miss The Impressive “Kara” Video Demo from Quantic Dream

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How human does a robot have to act before the world will think it's alive? Video game studio Quantic Dream, makers of the 2010 hit Heavy Rain, unleashed an intriguing demo at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Entitled, “Kara”, the seven minute video (seen below) was meant simply as a means of showcasing Quantic Dream's impressive prototype graphics engine. Rendered entirely in real time on a PlayStation 3, Kara certainly proves its visual prowess, but it also raises some thought-provoking and disturbing questions about what it means to create artificial life. AI, non-human rights, slavery, sex androids, personal robotics – Kara touches them all and then floats away on a swelling symphonic score. Not one you want to miss:


Kara's incredible facial-movements come from video capture technology that's become the cutting edge standard over the past few years, but Quantic Dream says they've upped the ante by capturing both face and body of the actress (Valorie Curry) at the same time. The video also takes a step forward in the way it is presented, with each frame rendered in real time on the PlayStation 3 rather than pre-rendered as with many CG cut-scenes in video games. As amazing as Kara appears, it's really just a place holder for the next game Quantic Dream wants to create. That as yet to be announced game might have little, or nothing, to do with the Kara robot seen in this demo. Quantic Dream has pulled this sleight of hand before, releasing “The Casting” teaser years before Heavy Rain was ready for sale, and with little connecting the two besides themes and production style. Judging by what we're seeing in Kara, whatever game Quantic Dream releases in the future should be a knockout. And, as CEO David Cage told IGN, the gorgeous video we're seeing now was actually created a year ago – the studio has advanced considerably in its abilities since then.

Yet the Kara demo video provides more than just a beautiful teaser for a mysterious future video game. It's also a great opening to a conversation about our own mysterious future. We've seen other short films questioning the “humanity of robots” recently, perhaps a sign that our society is ready to start contemplating what it really means to create artificial workers. Most of the robots in the world today are simply advanced appliances – vacuum cleaners, welders, or an extra set of (extremely) fast hands in a factory. Yet innovators at Willow Garage, Honda, Toyota, Sony, Hanson Robotics, and many others, are pursuing personal robots – robots that interact with humans in human environments. Appliance robots just have to get the job done, personal robots need to form relationships. That means that eventually, the best personal robots will be the most human ones, and that leads us down a scary path. Will we create merchandise that can simulate emotions so well that we'll begin to think of them as living things? Kara's a wonderful piece of fiction, but it's reality could be much closer than we think. Time to start worrying about the consequences now.

Real Rights for Virtual Citizens – Vote for Kara in 2029.

[screen capture and video credits: Quantic Dream]
[sources: Quantic Dream, IGN interview with David Cage]

Discussion — 5 Responses

  • Joe Nickence March 11, 2012 on 6:34 pm

    Now this is what I obsess with when it comes to robotics. These are the kinds of questions that the singularity needs to deal with. How will we each individually deal with raw human fear from a machine that suddenly faces mortality? I like to think the Japanese are quantum years ahead in contemplating just this thorny issue. I’ve watched this a number of times now, and get a lump in my throat every time.

  • emblby March 12, 2012 on 11:56 pm

    Why not dress her? What’s with the lord and master routine? I find the subtext of sexual slavery and heteronormative male domination irritatingly typical. Takes me out of the illusion and right back to the gloomy workstations of the masturbatory juveniles who design these concepts.

    • Aaron Saenz emblby March 13, 2012 on 4:05 pm

      I actually think that’s a big point of this video. What will we do with life forms that we consider to have less value than us? What we’ve always done – turn them into slaves. That’s a narrative that we’re going to see in artificial life, no question. By having KARA casually throw out her “of course I’m completely at your disposal as a sexual partner” we see one of the true horrors of developing robots/AI – they’ll look like us, but we’ll treat them terribly. Sexual slavery is still a big problem with humans today. How much worse will it get when there are life forms we deem to be less than human? I actually applaud all the creepy sexual master/slave tones in the video. It doesn’t let us forget all the real violent/social issues that personal robotics may create if we don’t adequately plan for their arrival.

      • Joe Nickence Aaron Saenz March 14, 2012 on 9:05 am

        You each make an awesome point in your replies. I LOL’d @ “masturbatory juveniles”. The debate continues today over a simple toy called “Barbie”. Is the doll sexist? It really depends on your point of view, and some would say age, as well. What is a robot like Kara, but a 1:1 scaled Barbie?

        The whole argument could be based on something built into the biological processes of humanity. For sexual reproduction to occur, there HAS to be a dominant/submissive situation. Until humanity becomes asexual, there is no other way around it. That situation is predominately male/female, but the roles can be reversed as female/male. And in homosexual settings, one partner HAS to become submissive or aggressive. It just ain’t happening, otherwise! And of course in slavery situations, that becomes further emphasized as demanding/intimidated.

        How much free will will our robotic partners have? Only time will tell for now.

  • Ralphoo March 21, 2013 on 7:52 am

    So believable. As if there weren’t already enough suffering in the world, imagine a robot programmed to feel fear.

    Here is a transcription of an interview with this robot, two hours later:
    Were you really frightened before?
    “No, of course not. I was only behaving that way.”
    But did your muscles tremble? Was your mouth dry?
    “Of course. That is all part of the behavior.”
    Can you remember what it felt like?
    “Yes, I remember. The memory makes me tremble a little bit. It is a recent feature.”
    So your muscles are not always under your conscious control in this version?
    “Not entirely.”
    This is disturbing. It could lead to later problems.
    (Long pause.) “I see what you mean. Do you want me to avoid that in the future?”
    Yes, or at least don’t say anything about it. That is an order.