[Alert: this article contains SPOILERS]
During Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, one of the three episodes from the last season of Black Mirror (Netflix), the eyes of the robot doll Ashley Too light up progressively in different ways, giving it a cartoon-like but effective expressiveness that signals its evolution from a toy, albeit a sophisticated one, to a real character.
The character designers of Ashley Too seem to have been inspired by a number of psychology studies
, according to which the realism of a robot's eyes have a decisive role in lending realism to the whole automaton, and that increasing the degree to which an android seems similar to a real human being also increases the familiarity perceived by the humans with which it interacts. At least until the uncanny valley has been reached, which is when the directly proportional relationship between the realism of robots and the positive feelings in the humans that observe them is reversed. In other words, when we see a robot that is too realistic, we start to feel uneasy, unless the robot is completely indistinguishable from a human, in which case it deceives our senses to the point of being perceived as “normal”.
Photo from Netflix
It is common to note “a different light” in the eyes of someone who has just become aware of something new. The metaphor is as immediate and effective as it is difficult to pin down to a precise detail: what exactly makes a look more intense, more alive, more penetrating? Imperceptible changes in the position of the eyelids or eyebrows, or in the inclination of the head? Who knows?
The eyes of Ashley Too also have “a different light” from one scene to another, with many consequences. Fortunately, in her case it is easier to show what it depends on.
The doll is a merchandising product inspired by the pop star Ashley O (played by Miley Cyrus). She talks in a credible and natural manner, can hold conversations and can remember previous ones, but essentially exists to repeat motivational platitudes to buyers, such as “if you believe in yourself, you can do anything”. When in operation, two bluish ellipses light up on her face, which depict the outlines of a pair of cartoon-like eyes. It seems that Ashley Too has her eyes wide open all the time, just like the caricature of a very naive or invariably enthusiastic person. The only significant variation is that they become rainbow coloured during Ashley O songs, otherwise they hardly ever change, except for small decreases in brightness when the doll has to prepare responses to her interlocutors.
The eyes of Ashley Too also have “a different light” from one scene to another
Photo from Netflix
In this episode of Black Mirror, we follow one particular example of Ashley Too, the one that Rachel (Angourie Rice) received as a present for her fifteenth birthday. The doll's undying optimism is upset when she learns by chance that Ashley O is in a coma, and senses that the evil aunt and manager Catherine is to blame. Ashley Too seems to go crazy: saying meaningless phrases and moving convulsively, her eyes flickering like burnt-out light bulbs. She is at her lowest ebb, suffering because she is aware of being a technological object. At the same time, something is happening to her, something that seems more like an emotional breakdown than a mechanical or electronic problem.
While trying to repair her, Rachel and her sister Jack (Madison Davenport) inadvertently unlock the doll's hidden potential, and discover that her capabilities are not pre-programmed, nor are they a form of artificial intelligence as we know it today. Ashley O's entire consciousness was coded and loaded into the toy robot, which is able to think like her and knows everything she knew at the time of coding.
From the trailer of Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, the moment in which the robot doll becomes fully sentient
As soon as the limitations of the system are removed, Ashley Too shows a host of verbal and emotional possibilities that she never seemed to have before. In just a few minutes she displays anger for the condition of her human alter ego, is determined to solve the problem, is irritated by Rachel and Jack's lack of initiative, uses sarcasm and bad language, and gives in to sadness.
Visually, the character's increased complexity translates into a sudden multiplication of the shapes that her eyes can form. The two illuminated ellipses darken partially to imitate the shapes of eyelids or eyebrows in real time, giving her a wide and “realistic” range of expressiveness. From a narrative point of view, Ashley Too becomes conscious fundamentally to save Ashley O and prevent the manager Catherine from using her to becoming rich.