S1mOne1 is a film (2002, Al Pacino et alia). This is not a review and we aren't concerned with the merits and failings of the film here.2 We will instead consider some ideas around the main plot device used in the story: the idea of a computer-generated digital actor. Specifically, we'll see how this idea of a digital actor fits into the larger picture of an artificial person and how we natural persons might react to such.

The Story

The film intends a satire of Hollywood with a good splash of farce. It tells of a minor movie director who is about to shoot the final scenes and wrap his career-saving movie, when the self-focused and pathologically status-conscious (yet marginally-talented) female lead suddenly walks out for various flitty reasons. In utter desperation, the director decides to secretly replace his star with a computer-generated actor simulation left to him on 5-inch floppy disks labeled "Simulation one" by some crazy genius who just died from eye cancer caused by staring at computer screens for all of his nerdly life, etc. The digital actress, Simone, was a smash international success. Everyone loved her, or wanted to love her. She was completely upstaging the director's movies and she became the only real attraction, thus entirely subverting the director's intention of focusing viewers on his 'art' rather than the star actress. Much of the movie turns around the situation comedy antics involved in hiding the secret from the public and things humorously not working out as intended.


Simone, is blonder than blonde and, of course, stop-and-gape beautiful. She has a winning, toothy smile and is as sexy as sexy gets. She is also a total screen puppet, the perfect actor, from one point of view. Unlike the mechanical people in many sci-fi films and stories, Simone has no intelligence or personality to drive her performance. Her actions and words are mere reproductions of the movements and speech of the director, as recognized and translated by the program. (The tech for doing exactly that is now real, sophisticated, and being used a lot in movies and big-title computer games.) She is fully malleable; her looks and mannerisms can be composed and adjusted from a library of data on movie stars, past and present. Too much Meryl Streep? Just literally dial it down; not enough Gene Tierney, or Lauren Bacall, perhaps? Crank it up a few notches. Simone is the perfect actor, no ego, no pay, does not get tired or sick, does her own stunts ('even the falling out of the airplane scene...'), does not object to nude scenes, doesn't demand a trailer bigger than everyone else's, etc. With a nicely subtle, brief presentation of a photo of Pygmalion in adoration of the hotness of his Galatea statue, the movie hints at the director falling for his own creation (well, not entirely his own creation) and the director's first reaction to Simone on screen was a comment on her beauty. Nevertheless, the story goes no further in that direction. (One of several potentially interesting avenues the film did not explore.)

This puppet actor concept is in strong contrast with the surprisingly many other stories that span our literature from ancient mythology to modern science fiction: Hephaestus, Pygmalion, Metropolis, The Stepford Wives, A.I., Her, Ex Machina, The Humans (TV Series) and innumerable others. In those stories the machine intelligence is near-human-level or beyond and the relationship between the sentient machines and individual people or human society is the central issue. Another interesting avenue the story failed to travel was what might have happened had the secret been revealed. How would the manic fans react to learning that Simone was not real? Would the deep commitment to an idol continue were Simone to be exposed as a lie?

To escape the deep hole he'd dug himself into, the director tries to turn the fans away from Simone by writing her into disgusting scenes in stupid movies, but it totally does not work. The audience but loved her all the more; it seemed nothing could break the phenomenon.

General Artificial Intelligence (and a quite bit beyond)

So how does this all relate to the bigger picture I mentioned earlier? Well, the bigger picture is the grand quest for 'general artificial intelligence', which is a technical label for humanoid robots such as imagined with Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet, the HAL 9000 in 2001, A Space Odyssey, the Star Wars bots, the high-end Terminator series, the child and other bots from the film A.I., and all of the many other totally human-like machines that men (and a woman or two) have fallen in love with in movies and other stories.

It's important to note, now, that the term 'artificial intelligence', whether general or specific, doesn't really capture the whole concept here, which is the artificial complete person. A complete person has self-identity and a capacity for general learning with or without supervision and personality development through interplay of nature and real-world experience.  For the artificial version, I prefer the term 'engineered person'. A marionette-like digital actor such as Simone is a great starting point for an engineering path that leads toward such thing. Let's consider why.

Problems with Simone v. 1.0

For the design purpose of passing for human in films and games, convincing appearance and behavior is enough. Although Simone solves a lot of problems for film directors and producers, many big problems remain, mostly centering around time and cost. In the film, the digital actor and the animation process are abstracted to extreme and enviable simplicity, as is usual for movies. Simone comes complete and perfect on a few floppy disks (you might have to ask your mom what those are) and the director is able to animate Simone quickly and easily, all by himself and using an ordinary desktop computer. In reality, however, a digital actor would have to be hand-assembled by a large team of experts in 3d modeling, animation rigging, character design, and CGI/film integration, etc. The digital acting (how the synthetic actor moves and sounds to express action and emotion on screen) also requires a large team of specialized talent. Remember, the puppet is still animated by reproducing the behavior of real persons, including voice actors and motion capture performers who follow scripts and direction from the film director. Even after all that, much post-production fine-tuning and hand-tweaking is needed. Rendering and integration of the whole thing also requires massive computing power.


The solution is to move away from the empty shell that is Simone towards a digital actor that has all the relevant functions of a human actor, but, most hopefully, fewer of the faults and disruptive needs. That path happens to superimpose very nicely on the development of an artificial general intelligence with the personality plug-in, or, as I prefer to say, an 'engineered person'. Simone will have to evolve from a highly sophisticated digital puppet that has not even a mote of intelligence or 'self' to an artificial person that can interpret scripts and stage direction and generate the complex behavior of a character from them.

The Path

Our starting point, Simone, is a body without a mind, your basic zombie, I guess. Her every movement, however slight, and her every display of emotion, however subtle, has to be captured from human acting and hand-wired in. Our destination is a digital actor that has all the relevant functions of a human actor and can pass for human on the screen. Each step on the path toward that goal will be a replacement of some part of the expensive and time-consuming human labor that animates Simone v. 1.0 with a process that generates the same behavior, or even improves it. We'll look at this path and the journey along it in very brief and simple outline, leaving the nitty-gritty for a separate later discussion with finer grain.

First, what is a human actor and what do they do? Very basically, an actor has a physical body of a certain type that moves in a three-dimensional space (the set) to perform action. An actor can speak and  express emotion through subtle physical and verbal behaviors. Overall, an actor's job is to portray a character in a story by following a script and direction, often adding depth, consistency, and complexity to the character's personality by interpretation and 'getting into character'. Can a 'machine' do that job? Maybe or maybe not, but it's our ultimate goal, and something we can define operationally.

The Process

Each step down our path is an abstraction of behavior. Now some of us equate 'abstract' with 'meaningless, nonsense pattern' from association with the terms 'abstract art' or 'abstract ideas' used pejoratively, but an abstraction really means taking a complex thing and representing it in a simple, condensed way, like effective poetic imagery and other good artistic representation. In this sense, all art and all words are abstract to varying degrees. Behavioral abstraction is something like that, but more exactly like the abstraction concept in the object-oriented computer programing paradigm.

Take a very simple action like walking, for example. Actually, walking is not at all simple; it is an extremely complex motion. When we use a single word to describe the entire collection of possible variations in the action of walking, it is the kind of abstraction we are talking about here. Let's say Simone is standing a few meters away from a window and the script calls for her to walk to straight up to the window, stop, and look out at something. There are actually hundreds, maybe thousands of different things that can affect the gait and how an actor performs that action, things like the character's age, body type, mental state, health, presence of objects, and on and on. If we rely on motion capture and hand-tweaking to achieve this simple performance, it would be very expensive and the result would not be reusable, as each captured action would be very specific to that particular situation, probably unique. What we want is to abstract the walking behavior and give Simone the ability to perform as many of the variations and adjustments that a human actor makes when walking naturally in different situations. We could then direct Simone 'on set' to 'walk slowly over to the window and look out wistfully', given that her character is 72 years old, obese, has pain in the right hip, and uses a cane, etc.

Moving down this path is a matter of building up such abstracted behaviors, including emotional reactions in particular, one small step at a time. Now, painting in broad strokes like this may make the process sound easy, but it's not. Parts are very, very difficult, and we can't even promise that the ultimate goal is reachable at all. But even if we don't ever quite get all the way there, each step closer that we do get adds value by reducing time and expense and improving the result.

Love at First Byte?

So, the final thing to consider is if we succeed in designing digital actors that can pass for human on the screen by having a rich inner self that generates character, how might people in general react to them? In the film, the secret about Simone was never revealed to the viewing public. But had it been, would the fans feel betrayed? Would they be angered to know that the object of their emotional commitment was not a 'real person', but some kind of software? Or might they exhibit the ELIZA effect, swinging the other way and continuing the emotional investment? What do you think?


1. Yes, the actual title is spelled as 'S1mOne', but it's never written that way in reference. I guess people either don't notice it or rightly think it's just silly and ignore the spelling.

2. See the typically excellent Roger Ebert review, if you are interested.

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