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Digital Actors Go Beyond the Uncanny Valley

Computer-generated humans in movies and video games are paving the way for new forms of entertainment

11 min read
Illustration: Ben Wiseman
Illustration: Ben Wiseman

Say hello to Ira. His head is visible on a screen as though he’s in a videoconference. He seems to be in his early 30s, with a shaved head, a pronounced nose, and thin eyebrows. Ira seems a little goofy and maybe just a wee bit strange. But unless you knew his full name—it’s “Digital Ira”—you probably wouldn’t guess that he’s nothing but bits.

In the background, a graphics processor churns through the calculations that determine every roll of his eyes, every crease or bulge of his skin, and every little arch of his eyebrow. Digital Ira can assume almost any expression—joy, befuddlement, annoyance, surprise, concern, boredom, or pleasure—in about the same amount of time it takes a human to do so.

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AI’s Grandmaster Status Overshadows Chess Scandal

Magnus Carlsen-Hans Niemann controversy underscores humans’ perpetual underdog role

4 min read
Two men playing chess

Magnus Carlsen [left] and Hans Niemann compete during the 2022 Sinquefield Cup at the Saint Louis Chess Club.

Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club

Last week Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champion, directly accused Hans Niemann, a U.S. grandmaster, of cheating during their game at the Sinquefield Cup, in St. Louis, Mo. He thus made plain an accusation he had been hinting at for weeks.

Carlsen has so far provided no evidence to back up his charge, nor has he specified how the cheating took place. Everyone agrees, however, that if there was cheating, then it must have involved computers, because nothing else could dismay Carlsen, whose rating of 2856 is higher than that of any other player. And everyone seems to have chosen sides.

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IHMC’s Nadia Is a Versatile Humanoid Teammate

This robust research platform is still humble enough to teleoperate

7 min read
Several different views of a headless black humanoid robot demonstrating its flexibility
IHMC

The Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) is well known in bipedal robotics circles for teaching very complex humanoid robots to walk. Since 2015, IHMC has been home to a Boston Dynamics Atlas (the DRC version) as well as a NASA Valkyrie, and significant progress has been made on advancing these platforms toward reliable mobility and manipulation. But fundamentally, we’re talking about some very old hardware here. And there just aren’t a lot of good replacement options (available to researchers, anyway) when it comes to humanoids with human-comparable strength, speed, and flexibility.

Several years ago, IHMC decided that it was high time to build their own robot from scratch, and in 2019, we saw some very cool plastic concepts of Nadia—a humanoid designed from the ground up to perform useful tasks at human speed in human environments. After 16 (!) experimental plastic versions, Nadia is now a real robot, and it already looks pretty impressive.

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