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Coming Down the Far Slope of the Uncanny Valley

I had a supremely odd experience a few days ago.  I was standing in line at the Itron cafeteria (I’m on half-time, long-term contract out there) and I was distractedly staring at no point in particular on the tile floor, shuffling my way through the line when I looked up and found myself face-to-face with a mannequin standing in the middle of the floor.

The mannequin was female and blonde.  It stood perhaps 5′ 8″ tall and, tellingly, had the kind of waxy complexion and surreally bright, marbly eyes that one only sees in childrens dolls.

It caught my eye for a brief second and then turned and wandered off.  “Holy shit!” my brain exclaimed “That’s one freaky looking robot.  It looks ALMOST human, but not quite!”  I had entered into Uncanny Valley territory.  (Yes, I was geek enough that my first thought upon seeing motion was “whoa, freaky gyndroid!”)

But here’s the thing: it was neither a mannequin, nor a robot.  It was a person.  She had on extremely thick makeup and (I think) some kind of odd contact that made her eyes unusually bright and gleamy.  Combine all that with the fact that she apparently had some kind of aversion to blinking and the net effect was that her skin look like textured, treated foam rubber and her eyes looked exactly like the creepy, dead eyes of a doll.

It turns out that, in the modern age, the Uncanny Valley is two-sided.  As a machine approaches human similarity, there’s a pitfall of emotional unease that it invariably falls into.  But as a person stops looking less and less like what we expect, they seem to tumble backwards into the same valley.  They become unnervingly human-like, even though they are, actually, human.

In retrospect, I had to laugh.  It occurs to me, though, that in studying the Uncanny Valley (a topic with which I’m obsessively fascinated) we often forget that we’re not, actually, studying something about our creations, but ourselves.  Too often we (or at least I) forget that robots may be the traditional inhabitants of the valley, but geographically, it’s located in our own minds.  It’s that part of our brain that sets off alarm bells at the not-quite-right.

I was thinking about this today and I got to wondering: could the psychological mechanisms responsible for the Uncanny Valley be responsible for prejudice?  We see someone whose skin is darker than ours and whose face is shaped almost, but not quite like the faces we typically see around us.  Perhaps there’s some niche in the Uncanny Valley that, for some, contains not machines, but “humans who aren’t like me”?

I’m not entirely convinced the mental processes are the same, but it’d be interesting to poll the emotional responses of people looking at vaguely human-like robots and compare those to (for instance) racist individuals looking at members of racial groups against which they are prejudiced.  Scientifically rigorous study of racism?  Hardly.  Damned interesting?  I think so.

At any rate, I was just interested to be reminded that there are two slopes to the Uncanny Valley.  And we pay so much attention to traversing it one way that we often forget that, under the right conditions, a reverse journey is possible, as well.

Uncanny Valley

Figure: The Uncanny Valley as graphically depicted by Masahiro Mori in his essay “The Uncanny Valley”

Posted in Geekery, Realtime Autobiography.

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  1. Michael says