AppleScript, Zombies, and Uncanny Valleys

I liked HyperTalk, but never got anywhere with AppleScript... I like Pixar but can't warm up to Disney... Now this all makes sense! Ever heard of the Uncanny Valley? No, not the one in California. The Uncanny Valley effect is not strictly a scientific theory, still it explains at least one of the weird things in live pretty well. :-)

In case you didn't have a Mac in the early nineties: HyperCard was an all-in-one tool famous for its English-like programming language, HyperTalk. Even if HyperCard today lost its position to the technologies it had inspired (wiki, hypertext browsers), it was the best a programming beginner with a Mac could get those days. HyperCard was cool cause it gave you the opportunity to also program games instead of only playing them.

Today, MacOSX still comes with an offspring of HyperTalk that was extended to be a AppleEvent scripting language: AppleScript. The fact that AppleScript syntax still resembles the English language seemed the perfect solution for users who didn't want to dig into the details of UNIX shell scripting! Unfortunately, AppleScript turned out to be the opposite of Perl: Easy to read, but hard to write.

tell application "Finder" to set my_list to every item of folder "Documents" of home whose name starts with "A"

Possibly, the concept did not scale to work as a systemwide scripting language: Despite the language being modelled on the English language, the vast majority of users never managed to quickly write a semantically correct AppleScript from scratch... I'm pretty sure that AppleScript even was the major reason for many MacOS X users to learn shell scripting. It definitely was for me. =-) Of course, the bash scripts' front- and backslashes coupled with three different kinds of quotation marks are by no means more readable, but the success rates for getting the script to run in the first place are much higher in bash.

I remembered my short dabbling in AppleScript when I read the Uncanny Valley of AppleScript. Interesting theory: Switching your mindset to communicating in "natural language" changes your expectations toward the conversational partner. And when the partner is only a program, it will certainly not fulfil the expectations. Eventually, the discrepancy between the implicit promise of a natural conversation and the program's stupidity can be very infuriating.

What is this 'Uncanny Valley'? When Masahiro Mori plotted people's acceptance of anthropomorphic robots in a chart, he started out with a box on wheels, and worked his way up to C3PO-like robots. As expected, the subjects' acceptance towards the robot character increased. He was however surprised to find that acceptance flipped over to repulsion at a high point of anthropomorphism: Very life-like robots and CGI animated characters were suddenly considered nothing but horribly wrong zombie-puppets. 8-| That may be just perfect for Terminator and I Robot, but I think at least Tom Hanks had different plans in mind for his main role(s) in Polar Express. (Already horror enough to everone who doesn't like Tom Hanks...) ;-)

Some things start slowly making sense: One of the most well-done animation movies, Final Fantasy was quite a dissapointment at the box-offices. Instead, the crowds flocked to Bugs, Nemo, Monsters and The Incredibles, whose characters do act human, but clearly look like cartoon characters. (As an aside: The most loveable Pixar character of all times is Luxo, the desklamp. No face, no eyes, no feet, nothing. A desklamp!) On the other hand, people loved the very human Cyberpunk character Max Headroom. Wanna know why? He wasn't computer-generated at all, but played by Matt Frewer and then post-edited to look like CGI.

The German wikipedia entry mentions two more examples of potential acute Uncanny Valley syndrome: At the CeBIT convention, visitors totally loved the adorable vacuum cleaner bots. These bots were appearantly driven by very human feelings like hunger and got excited everytime a mean visitor blocked their way to an electrical outlet when they wanted to recharge. On the other hand, adults at the same convention shunned the much more carefully designed humanoid robots, and some children where seen running away crying when the androids approached.

Possibly, there are too many small details we are aware of in Real Healthy Living Humans™. Not only in the Final Fantasy movie but also in the great Diablo II cutscenes, I often found myself pondering strange things like the speed of gestures...? inertia of body parts...? visibility of sinews and muscles...? Are those characters dead, hollow, or suffering from an overdose of Botox...? etc. I get the impression that maybe even speech technology applications suffer from a problem very similar to the Uncanny Valley: Users feel mocked by a speech recognition service that e.g. understands perfectly well that you want to order a train ticket for next Sunday evening, but then politely insists on Novosibirsk instead of Nuremberg. Well, good news is, we can look forward to lots and lots more of speech recognition applications, antropomorphic robots, and live-like animations in the near future — so if there is anything to that Uncanny Valley theory, we will have the proof soon enough...

PS: Another example, this innovative leight-weight Android named Lara from Germany was build not to fall into the Uncanny Valley trap. (Click "Bilderstrecke" to see more detailed photographs.) Interesting, let's see how they will fare.


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