Why can't Nvidia boss Jensen Huang escape the Uncanny Valley that makes AI feel icky?
Is he human? Is he an avatar? Does it really even matter?
Opinion If you decide to visit the Computex tech fest, it's important to understand two things: Taiwan's weather is stinking hot that time of year; and Taiwan's signature snack – stinking tofu – is well-named and very much an acquired taste.
I mention these tidbits because one of the sensations of this year's show was Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang "spontaneously" appearing at one of Taipei's famous night markets while wearing his trademark black leather jacket.
A couple of days later, again in that jacket, he claimed during his Computex keynote that he had visited the market where you could buy said stinking tofu – and showed off a joyless avatar recommending a visit.
His keynote kicked off with a demo of generative AI pressed into service to animate a non-player character in a game.
"I am worried about the crime around here. It's gotten bad lately. My ramen shop got caught in the crossfire," intoned a character named Jin, which spoke in a husky monotone heavy with the leaden tone of a hostage video.
Huang's point was that those words and Jin's appearance were generated on the fly, using models created for the game and run on Nvidia hardware, naturally. Generative AI will therefore mean gamers will apparently be just a little more entertained.
But Jin swayed unnaturally, blinked slowly and at odd moments, and in no way resembled any actual ramen shop owner – or human – The Reg has ever met. The character was clearly a resident of the Uncanny Valley – the sensory space proposed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970 in which synthetic humans can repel rather than delight.
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Huang delivered more unsettling content as he continued. He had an AI create an Nvidia jingle which would get any songwriter or copywriter fired. He spruiked Nvidia products by saying: "The more you buy the more you save," and used that phrase so often the hyperbole became a running gag – which he managed to pull off, thanks to his status as an avatar of a Taiwan-born entrepreneur who has made it big on the world stage.
The CEO also talked up AI's ability to improve everything, ASAP, without a pause to consider the many ethical issues it raises.
Huang did all this wearing that same leather jacket he incongruously wore in Taipei's summer evening heat, and which appeared not to discomfort him during two hours spent under stage lights. Indeed, between the matte jacket, black jeans, white-rimmed sneakers, shock of grey hair, adoring crowd, and two hours of self-promoting speechifying, Huang became easier to perceive as an avatar than as a human.
And for this Reg hack, that avatar entered the Uncanny Valley. Huang's pitch was so investor-serving – and so devoid of introspection – as to defy human judgement.
Huang ended with demos of a digital twin helping to automate electronics manufacturer Pegatron's factory floor – an AI application he endorsed as making humans safer by removing them from the workplace, while improving prosperity for all.
Which just deepened the uncanny feeling that AI has many downsides we're yet to understand. ®