Skip to main content

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

More than human

by Gillian Raymond, 3 July 2023

Kyoto Temple Enlists Android Buddhist Deity to Help People, 23 February 2019 The Asahi Shimbun.
Kyoto Temple Enlists Android Buddhist Deity to Help People, 23 February 2019 The Asahi Shimbun. Courtesy Getty Images. © The Asahi Shimbun

Human-like robots provoke unsettling feelings of familiarity crossed with unease and sometimes revulsion. The ‘uncanny valley’ (bukimi no tani), coined by Japanese roboticist Professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, essentially describes the relationship between an object’s degree of resemblance to a human being and an observer’s emotional response to the object. As Professor Mori wrote, ‘We should begin to build an accurate map of the uncanny valley, so that through robotics research we can come to understand what makes us human.’ Anyone who is familiar with the Netflix hit series, Black Mirror, or has encountered one of Australian artist Patricia Piccinini’s hyper-real sculptures, will have experienced the feeling of blundering into the uncanny valley.

These humanoid robots can be viewed as a kind of portrait; of humanity, of our desire to relate to each other, and of scientific discovery. This brave new world of technological advancement is pushing the boundaries of portraiture, and indeed art, as we know it. Let’s consider what the future might hold by taking an experimental journey into the weird, wired world of the post-human.

Transhumanists have long speculated that technological developments will bring about a kind of digital utopia whereby humans are able to live on after death. In 2023, with the evolution of artificial intelligence, blockchain and the proliferation of social media use, it is now possible to imagine a future where we can create new forms of posthumous digital presences. The rapid evolution of chatbots such as Project December, ChatGPT or Google’s recently announced Bard project can emulate the style of whatever text is fed to it. Through learning from the preserved remnants of our digital trails – emails, text messages, social media interactions, voice recognition software, voicemail, photos and video recordings – AI can enable a digital presence to ‘talk’ in a way that mimics someone who is no longer with us. Not only will our presence be preserved, but it has the potential to replicate and continue to evolve after we die.

These digital ‘voices’ will require a visual, and possibly physical, presence for their descendants to interact with. Deep fake technology has reached a level of sophistication such that animated avatars can be created to continue a conversation from beyond the grave. One example of this which captured the popular imagination back in 2020 was Kanye West’s gift to his then wife Kim Kardashian for her 40th birthday: a hologram of her dead father, Robert. The singing telegram has come a long way … Google it if you dare. Experiments in digital immortality are not restricted to the aural and visual realms; haptic feedback chairs and scent dispensers could make it possible to not just see the image of the deceased but to smell them and physically feel their presence.

As you have been reading these words, you may have started to experience a creeping feeling of discomfort. To interrogate the theory behind these feelings of disquiet, let’s take a step back and examine some of the early technological experimentation in human replication.

There is no better place to study a humanist approach to robotics development than Japan. The reasons for this are complex, however, to summarise: in the West, the long-held idea of the automaton was to recreate a human being from inanimate matter; the Japanese vision is that humans are already a part of nature, and so, therefore, the robot is also a part of nature. Biologist Makoto Nishimura considered his automaton Gakutensoku, created in 1928, as nature’s grandchild, because humans are ‘the children of nature’. Similarly, in Japan the feelings evoked by robotic encounters differ greatly to those we are used to in the West – in contrast to their Japanese counterparts, the robotic characters of Western science fiction are often threatening. Think, Japan’s most legendary robotic export Astro Boy versus the Terminator.

Created by Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy first appeared in a Japanese manga series in 1951. As Tezuka explains: ‘Japanese don’t make a distinction between man, the superior creature, and the world about him. Everything is fused together, and we accept robots easily along with the wide world about us, the insects, the rocks – it’s all one. We have none of the doubting attitude toward robots, as pseudo humans, that you find in the West.’

In 2018, I undertook a pilgrimage, of sorts, to the southern tip of Japan to interview Professor Mori – then a spritely 91 – about his career in robotics and automation. A devout Buddhist, Mori has authored a book The Buddha in the Robot, entwining his religious and scientific beliefs. He writes: ‘I believe robots have the Buddha-nature within them – that is, the potential for attaining Buddhahood.’ Mori, fondly referred to as ‘Dr Robot’, has advocated the notion of the ‘soft machine’ as opposed to the ‘hard machine’; unlike the latter, which is understood as an industrial robot that only pursues productivity and efficiency, the soft machine is a robot that can facilitate harmony between humans and machines.

This is epitomised by the android robotic priest unveiled at Kodaji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto in 2019. Designed to channel the Buddhist deity of mercy, Mindar delivers sermons with English and Chinese subtitles projected on the wall and accompanying background music. According to Tensho Goto, Mindar’s chief steward, acceptance of a robot form of Kannon is more easily tolerated in Buddhist philosophy as ‘Buddhism isn’t a belief in a God; it’s pursuing Buddha’s path. It doesn’t matter whether it’s represented by a machine, a piece of scrap metal, or a tree’. Or, indeed, a robot.

Mindar was the brainchild of legendary Japanese roboticist, Hiroshi Ishiguro, who rose to fame with the development of his robotic doppelganger, using silicone rubber, pneumatic actuators, powerful electronics and hair from his own scalp. The first in a series of lifelike humanoid robots that have the appearance of a specific person, Ishiguro coined them ‘Geminoids’ – derived from the Latin word geminus, meaning twin. By building humanlike robots Ishiguro hopes for them to reach the state of what the Japanese call sonzaikan – the presence, or essence, of a human being.

Other robotic developments by Ishiguro that wade determinedly into the uncanny valley include Telenoid R1. The size of a small child, hairless, with a soft torso and stumps in place of limbs, the Telenoid is designed to ‘transmit the presence’ of a person – their voice, face and head movements – to those in another part of the world. When launched in 2010, its creators acknowledged people may not instantly warm to it. ‘However, once we communicate with others by using the Telenoid,
we can adapt to it. If a friend speaks from the Telenoid, we can imagine the friend’s face on the Telenoid’s face. If we embrace it, we have the feeling that we embrace the friend.’

As debates over ‘artificially intelligent’ art, sentient AI and deep fakes continue to disturb and intrigue in equal measure, it is fascinating to consider what the future of portraiture might look like for our kids and grandkids. Will the uncanny valley one day be bridged?

© National Portrait Gallery 2024
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
ABN: 54 74 277 1196

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency