The Uncanny Valley

In robotics, there is a phenomenon called the “uncanny valley” about the emotional response people have to human likenesses.  If you create a robot that is 50 percent lifelike, people love it.  If that robot is 90 percent lifelike, people love it.  If that robot is 100 percent lifelike, people love it.  But if that robot is 95 percent lifelike, people fear it and do not understand why.

Here are some examples of recent innovations in android and robot technology that demonstrate the uncanny valley.

At Osaka University, Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro has become very famous for his lifelike androids.

And from Ishiguro and the Japanese firm Kokoro comes Geminoid-DK.

But we also see this trend emerging with the combination of animation, digital technology, and film.  Avatar is a perfect example.  Much of the time, as I sat in that theater marveling at the spectacle of the film, there was a part of me always uncannily aware of the artifice of it.

The cliche has always been the same: It concerns itself with either the fear people have about the day when we’re unable to differentiate between the droids and our fellow human beings or the day when those droids become more powerful than us.  Whatever.  The reason we feel fear in the uncanny valley may be because of just that anxiety, sure.  But what if that unease doesn’t actually come from a sense of doom?  What if comes from a sense of truth we feel emerging out of the artificial?

In fiction we often use a term called verisimilitude or “truthlikeness,” which is the appearance of truth in something that is obviously artifice.  If art is imitative as Aristotle suggests it is (mimesis) than our goal as writers and artists may be to somehow represent some kind of “truth.”  I’m not sure if I believe that–a part of me does–but I do feel a sense of unease when I read a novel by Nabokov or Angela Carter or Tolstoy or John Barth.  I feel it when I read Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances or Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.  While I cannot identify directly with the emotional and sexual dilemma of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, like a magician Nabokov gradually makes me feel like I can and like I do.  I not only suspend my disbelief–I come to understand and come to identify with a character I loath.  In fact, what makes me feel as though I’m trapped in the uncanny valley is the feeling that I am Humbert Humbert.

Often I suspect that bad art is art that attempts to do what so many people instruct artists to do: Writers tell writers to write for the average reader.  David Simon, the writer, creator of The Wire, and 2010 MacArthur Fellow once said:

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

There’s a chance that we all take when we attempt to create something different, something a bit “realer” than anything created before, something closer to us, closer to the stuff that makes us alive and able to empathize, closer to the thing that differentiates us from all that is foreign and unknown.  Maybe, when we leave all the cliches and the imitations and the average readers behind and succeed in creating something truly new and innovative, there always comes that fear of the uncanny.  Perhaps the uncanny valley is actually an anxiety about progress.

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