Yeah, Though I Walk Through the Valley of Uncanny

Our text for today is “The Uncanny Valley.” No, it’s not the title of the latest pseudo-scientific romance or a herald of the return of the gothic novel. It’s a rather intriguing theory proposed by the Japanese computer scientist Masahiro Mori in 1970, and it goes something like this: as robots are made more and more human-like, they are perceived more and more positively by actual humans until they reach a point in the curve where they are almost but not quite fully human-appearing, and it is at that point that the positive reaction quickly changes to feelings of revulsion, repulsion, even horror. It is only when the robot is fully human in appearance does the effect reverse itself. This sudden sharp drop in the graph is what Mori referred to as “the uncanny valley.”

Considering mankind’s very slow progress in robotics, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the bulk of anecdotal confirmation for Mori’s theory came first from computer graphics rather than robotics. It’s almost trivial these days for a good CGI artist to make a realistic-looking human figure rendered in 3D, but animating that figure equally as realistically? That is another story and it turns out Mori might have been on to something—there’s something wired into our lizard-brains that means humans are extremely sensitive to perceptions of “almost but not quite right.” Something wrong with the way the mouth moves, the sheen on the skin, the eyes that forget to blink, and we’re thinking alien, undead, pod-person, whatever. More recently, computer scientists have come to question the entire notion of “the uncanny valley,” saying there’s no scientific evidence for it. True. All anecdotal, as I said. Still, I tend to think there’s something there.

It also explains the effectiveness of some approaches to dark fantasy and horror, where there’s someone there who isn’t quite right. The protagonist can’t quite get a grip on it, but there’s something wrong with the new neighbor. Unease builds on little incidents, little hints, until the secret is revealed—OMG, he’s a vampire! Or Democrat. Or Republican Or vegetarian. Some inexplicable OTHER. Probably overused, but then cliches get repeated for a reason.

All of which is a round the world way of saying that now I finally understand why I can’t stand to play Elder Scrolls: Oblivion on my PS3, and why I haven’t picked up Skyrim. Despite the game’s many good points, I can’t bear to look at it for long. All the characters creep the heck out of me.

*Nothing says “Monday” like starting a post with a typo.

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One thought on “Yeah, Though I Walk Through the Valley of Uncanny

  1. “…OMG, he’s a vampire! Or Democrat. Or Republican Or vegetarian. Some inexplicable OTHER…”

    At least, if they’re vegetarians. we know they’re not Pod People, unless they practice cannibalism, or they eat only Pod People from another planet of Pod People.

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