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.