The Uncanny Valley is a concept of which I'm particularly fond. It describes the effect robots or avatars have on us when they fall between the unthreateningly unhuman and the acceptably similar. make a robot look like Robbie, and it's an engaging, intriguing object. Make it like a Bladerunner replicant, and we can relate without reservation - well, if it's not busy trying to rip our head off by our nostrils or blow us away with some heavy hand artillery.
But if it looks a lot like a human yet lacks the right cues, it's disturbing. We don't want to have anything to do with it. It's in the uncanny valley. That's why mainstream computer animation still sticks to animals, cars and toys: there's still a huge amount of work to do before the eyes aren't lifeless, the mouth conveys the right emotion, the head tilts just so.
This may be a cultural thing. Kids are far more used to interacting with images of artifically generated humans in online games, which may be why this artifical newsreader at Northwestern University, Illinois, is getting such strong approval elsewhere while making my skin crawl. The AI is great - the program cuts together news stories, add links, picks pictures and frames the video - so hats off for that. You should have a look at the demo files. But the main news reader is just wrong - and the strange, quasi-tramp like man who fixes you with the intense stare of the truly psychotic for the "From the Blogosphere" segment makes me want to rip my router from the wall in fear and loathing.
There are some things that humans do best - especially when they're being especially human. Reggie Bosanquet, the newsreader from the 70s? Remember him?
Simon Hoggart remembers...
"Reggie Bosanquet, however, might be fading from our collective memory, and that would be sad. His manner seemed to be simultaneously trying to seduce women viewers, while communicating to the men that he didn't give a damn what they thought. He spent most of the day in a wine bar opposite the ITN studios, and seeing how drunk Reggie was each night became something of a national pastime.
I met him once, when ITN shared space with various regional TV stations. We were introduced in the green room, then he disappeared, carrying two vast goblets of red wine. I asked where he'd gone, and was told "to read the news, of course". He would wait for a film report, then take a deep gulp. He must have shifted the best part of a bottle in the half-hour bulletin. "
Take that, automatic avatars, and party. Oh, you can't.
Never mind, eh?