A real, functioning android named Erica has been cast as the lead character in a new science fiction feature film. The Hollywood Reporter announced early yesterday that Bondit Capital Media, the production company behind Oscar-nominated Loving Vincent, Happy Moon Productions, Ten Ten Global Media and LA Independent Film & Entertainment L.I.F.E. are financing a $70 million science fiction film simply entitled b, which will be the first feature to be lead by an artificially intelligent actor*.
Predicted by so many science fiction stories, machines have been replacing men and women in virtually every industry for decades. From the handcrafted automatons of 17th century France to today’s automobile production lines, from self-checkout stations at the supermarket to Boston Dynamics’ general purpose quadrupeds, robots and technology have reshaped our lives through the ages (and with the popularity of such tech as Amazon’s Echo, Skynet may be just around the corner).
Visual effects artist Eric Pham (Red Planet, Sin City) is teaming up with producer Sam Khoze and actor Tarek Zohdy to create a story that follows a scientist who helps an artificial intelligent woman escape an experimental program meant to perfect human DNA.
Developed by robotics engineer Dr. Dylan Glas and Japanese scientists Hiroshi Ishiguro and Kohei Ogawa, real-life A.I. Erica emerged as part of the team’s project study of robotics called JST Erato, according to a 2017 report by The Guardian in the embedded video below. Seeking to more thoroughly explore what it is to be human, Erica’s team set out to create a human-like autonomous android complete with its own personality and ability to think and act on its own.
Capable of casual conversation with visitors, The Guardian reported in April of 2017 that Erica has “one of the most advanced speech synthesis systems yet developed.”
“I would like very much to move my arms and legs,” said Erica in the short YouTube video posted by The Guardian in April of 2017 embedded above. “The wonderful thing is that they tell me it will really happen someday. Let’s see. What else? Another thing I would like is to get out of this room and see the world.”
With an exterior made of silicone, Erica has two 16 microphone arrays that sense where sound is coming from allowing her to recognize who is talking. The humanoid also has 14 infrared depth sensors allowing her to track movement of people who are within eyesight. As if this were not fascinating – and eerie – enough, Erica has face recognition capability and exhibits the ability to form a variety of facial expressions. Since the 2017 video, she has acquired the ability to move her arms and make simple hand gestures.
Still, Erica isn’t completely self-contained. It takes a whole lot of computing power to help Erica do what she does, and a good deal of electrical power which, at the moment, her slight frame isn’t big enough to carry. Even so, her creators have gone a long way towards getting rid of the uncanny valley effect most androids incur, by paying attention to details such as minor inflections of voice, and micro-movements of the eyes.
The ultimate goal of Ishiguro’s team is to create a robot that transcends programming and can be thought of as a living being with which one can interact. With a wide variety of films warning of ethical problems stemming from android development and self-aware robots, it’s safe to say that not everyone may be comfortable with this type of technical revolution. However, The Gaurdian reported in Dec. of 2015 that Ishiguro believes it is much too early to consider robotics leading to a kaktopian society ruled by A.I.
“I don’t think there’s an ethical problem,” says Ishiguro. “First we have to accept that robots are a part of our society and then develop a market for them. If we don’t manage to do that, then there will be no point in having a conversation about ethics.”
I can almost hear Laurence Fishburne including these words in Morpheus’ monologue as he explains to Neo what historically happened before things went so very wrong. After offering some hopeful ideas about the helpfulness of autonomous androids in society, Erica gives what can be perceived as a promising – or alarming – message concluding The Gaurdian’s YouTube video.
“My personal opinion is that a bit further in the future,” said Erica, “robots will run the world. I don’t know if you’ve seen the news lately, but I don’t think humans are doing a very good job at it.”
Whether we will be enslaved by robots, cultivated as batteries and harvested for our energy has yet to be seen. For now, Erica will dominate the red carpet in the upcoming feature b, which is currently in pre-production, and possibly revolutionize an industry seeking to navigate COVID-19 and these uncertain times.
Watching her actually walk down that red carpet? They’ve already made significant advances in her mobility. I guess we’ll see.
*No, Johnny Five doesn’t count – he was a collection of puppets that could perform under direct human control, and not even a real robot because though he played an autonomous machine, he wasn’t one in real life.