A.I. is ready for its closeup, as robot prepares to star in film

Erica the robot will play an artificial intelligence on the run in a movie called b

More human than human? Erica the robot is seen here in a makeup test shot for the movie b. Photo by Elizabeth Sadegh / Life Productions

Article content

In 2014, a digitally enhanced Alicia Vikander portrayed a robot named Ava in the science-fiction thriller Ex Machina. Coming soon is a movie called b, in which a robot named Erica will take on the role of an artificial intelligence that tries to escape from a laboratory with the help of a (human) scientist.

“These are two completely different stories,” says producer Sam Khoze. “Also, there is a big difference between Erica and robots in Ex Machina. Erica is an actual robot, not a visual effect. In Ex Machina a human played the role with the help of VFX. Our process for filming Erica was very similar to humans. We read lines with her, we practiced, she repeated, memorized and performed.”

Khoze, a filmmaker and AI enthusiast, is answering questions by email, raising the spectre of a Turing test. In this context, that’s the notion that if you can converse by text with a robot film producer and its answers are indistinguishable from those of a human producer, then the machine is by definition intelligent.

Article content

I continue with the assumption that Khoze is a human, and ask if Erica might also be capable of playing a human. “The expectation of the public from AI and robots is very much beyond reality,” he replies. “There is progress when it comes to perfecting AI algorithms. But when it comes to physical activities there are many limitations. Also, a human is capable of having emotional thoughts. If one day we can achieve decoding human emotions we can have this conversation. What makes us human is our feelings.”

Art is something in between the black and white area, it is in a gray area

The movie b is officially in pre-production, with some test footage in the can, but no director or other actors attached. Khoze says negotiations are ongoing with both humans and other robots, and he’ll have more to report soon. Like a lot of film production, work has been stalled by the pandemic, raising the question of whether robot actors might one day perform jobs deemed too dangerous for people, like acting closer than six feet apart.

“I don’t think it’s fair to believe robots are here to replace humans,” he says. “We are creating and adding a new branch to the entertainment industry, [which can] benefit from the combination of computer graphics, machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence.”

But he notes that his company, Life Productions, is also at work on an algorithm that can create a digital version of an actor, complete with personality and character. (No word on what happens if the actor doesn’t already possess those traits.)

Alicia Vikander played a robot named Ava in the 2014 film Ex Machina. Photo by Universal Pictures

“We can create AI versions of talent that can be designed to match the real personality specifications, in which people can license the digital version of themselves to third parties without showing up on set to appear in a movie, stage, interview or put their lives in risk to play dangerous scenes, especially in times of strict safety protocols. We called it Digital Preservation.”

He adds ominously: “It is the first step to immortality.”

Life Production cast Erica in b but did not build her. She is the brainchild of Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, where she was created about five years ago. Her age at the time was given as 23 and it still is, which is enough to strike fear into the heart of any normally aging human actor. (Kate Beckinsale and Hugh Jackman would appear to have nothing to worry about.)

Erica was at one time touted as a possible newsreader. She was also to star in a movie directed by Tony Kaye (American History X), though that project ultimately fell through. Khoze’s film has multiple backers and a budget of $70-million.

Outside of her burgeoning film career, Erica can often be found in the lobby of Japan’s Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, working on her people skills. Despite her 44 pneumatic actuators, her movements are a bit jerky, and she struggles to bridge the uncanny valley (the realm in which a robot looks creepily almost-human) and develop sonzai-kan, a Japanese word that refers to the sense of consciousness and presence as felt by others.

Keanu Reeves managed this feat all on his own. If b comes to fruition in a year or two, we’ll see if a robot can do the same.

“Machines work on binary systems,” says Khoze. “There are no gray areas, it’s black and white, it’s zero and one. Art is something in between the black and white area, it is in a grey area. This project is about how to reach that grey area.”

And what about that title? What does b stand for? Khoze is coy. “Maybe there is no meaning,” he says. “Maybe it’s just her model. Maybe no matter how hard we try to personify objects, they really are just a ‘b’ or a ‘c.’ Maybe she wants to be.”

LATEST Publication