Science, But Make It Fiction: Erica Goes to Hollywood
When you close your eyes, there’s nothing extraordinary about the voice. It’s singsongy, maybe a bit posh. A documentary crew from The Guardian has trained their cameras on Erica, the woman to whom the voice belongs, and she is ready to answer some questions. Right off the bat, in what sounds like a page taken from Philip K. Dick, a reader asks Erica if her memories, cobbled together, form her identity. It’s at this point you should probably open your eyes and learn for yourself: Erica is a machine. And not just any machine, but an incredibly advanced robot meant to replicate the experience of interacting with an actual flesh-and-blood person.
Erica is the brainchild of Hiroshi Ishiguro, the director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University in Japan, who has spent much of his career trying to pinpoint and alchemize the elements that make up a human being as part of his research into artificial intelligence. Years ago, his work sparked a chain of thoughts: Humans have an easier time interacting with other humans than they do with computer screens, and his experiments with machine learning would be much more effective if they were mapped out onto an actual avatar. “The human brain has a mini-function to recognize other humans,” Ishiguro says. “As a result, we need to have very human-like robots if we expect a natural interaction with the robots.” The need for fidelity is paramount—hence the development of Erica, a lifelike robot whose symmetrical, conventionally beautiful face is meant to “encourage people’s imaginations.”
As with all pretty, shiny things, Erica has gone Hollywood. Earlier this year, she was cast as the lead in b, an upcoming sci-fi movie about a scientist who creates an artificially intelligent woman and then helps her escape her trappings. It will be the first film to rely on an artificially intelligent actor, though her human costar and the director haven’t yet been cast. “We wanted to use the capacity of robots in the movie and see their performance next to humans,” says Sam Khoze, one of the film’s producers. “We tried with this movie, as much as possible, to stay loyal to science, but make it fiction.”
Erica’s role in the film, which is expected to go into full production next summer, involves a mild sleight of hand: She isn’t able to walk, meaning that any movement will have to come from traditional computer-generated graphics. The artificial intelligence that constitutes her personality will have more speaking time in an off-camera role, and a traditional actor may even be brought in to voice those lines in Erica’s body as well. But the subtle expressions, movements, and gestures that constitute “normal” human behavior—that’s all Erica. “Something is very beautiful about Erica,” Khoze says. “When you look at her, you believe she’s human.”