Uncanny Valley

Picture this.

You are walking down the street one day and a stranger approaches.  As he gets closer, a little alarm bell goes off in the back of your brain: There is something wrong with that person.  Something in the way he looks.  Something in the way he moves.  Whatever it is, that little bell in your brain gets louder and louder, the closer he comes.  You begin to feel vaguely threatened.

Now he gets closer still, to the point where features can be made out, and it only gets worse.  The cock of the head, the twitch of the mouth, the dart of the eyes, it’s all wrong, wrong, wrong.  You try the uncomfortable trick of looking away while watching every move he makes.  Unconsciously, you move a little sideways, to pass at a larger than normal distance.

Then, whew!

You’ve made it.  Yet another street person/panhandler/weirdo avoided.

Now, one could make rude judgments about all that.  About how uncharitable you were to avoid eye-contact.  About how you were really afraid to see the other as truly human because we all know how close we are to falling out of our world and into theirs.  About any number of discreditable reasons you might have had.

And maybe you would deserve all of them.

But maybe not.

Instead, maybe you have fallen into the Uncanny Valley.

The term “Uncanny Valley” was coined by a Japanese roboticist named Mori Masahiro.  (It’s a pretty literal translation of his term, Bukimi No Tani.)  Mori had noticed a curious thing.  If you make a robot that looks like a an automobile assembly machine, nobody cares (except maybe the people who are replaced by it).  Make one that looks a bit human, say with two arms, two legs, and a head, and people have a modestly positive response.  Something like, “How cute.”

If you go still further, and give it human features, say, or a computer generated “voice,” the response is even more positive.  We apparently rather like to see robots that look like people.  We are even impressed that they can walk up stairs or run a vacuum, or whatever.  And the more human they look and act, the more of a positive response we have.

Up to a point.

But if our robot gets too good, too human looking and acting, there is an abrupt change.  All of a sudden people say that the robot is “creepy” or “frightening” or “weird.”

This abrupt change in reaction is what Mori called the Uncanny Valley.

Somewhere along the line our robot has passed from the point where it’s a clever machine, imitating human behavior, into becoming a genuine being with something wrong with it.  And that “something wrong” sets off those alarm bells in the back of our brains.

And it isn’t just a matter for the roboticists.  Hollywood has smacked up against the Uncanny Valley…and bounced.

Somewhere in the heart of every computer animator is the notion that there will come a time when actors simply aren’t needed.  When they will get so good at their jobs that they will be able to create animated characters that are literally indistinguishable from real ones.  In short, that they animators will take over and dispense with all those expensive, temperamental, superfluous humans.

But the people who saw Polar Express and Beowulf found that they not only didn’t relate to the characters, they were actually repelled by them.  Once again, words like “creepy” popped up in the audience surveys.

One of my favorite animated movies of recent years was Shrek.  What I didn’t know was that the animators had worked very hard to make Princess Fiona much nearer to human.  They were successful.

And the kids who saw her hated her.

So it was back to the drawing board (er…computer).  Fiona was dumbed down. Made more cartoon-like.  Then retested.  And all the kids loved her.  She’s the one we see today.

There are lots of arguments about why the Uncanny Valley exists or even if it really exists.  At this very moment tests are being run and dissertations written on this very subject.  So I feel no shame in putting in my two cents worth.

In my opinion, the Uncanny Valley lies way down deep in our brains, maybe in the limbic portion.  I think it resides in the most primitive “Us vs Them” discriminator.

Way, way down in the lizard portion of our brain, there is not a lot of sophisticated analysis.  It doesn’t say, Oh, there is an animal that has big teeth that could do me potential harm.  And it certainly doesn’t say, Oh, there is a person who is carrying a weapon and could therefore do me potential harm.

No.  The first thing it distinguishes is simply Us or Them.  Anything, animal or human, that doesn’t pass the Us discriminator, is automatically presumed to be an enemy until proven otherwise.

Now a discriminator that only works close up, when you can see the slant of the eye, the color of the skin, the beard on the chin, would not be terribly useful from a survival point of view.  By the time a system like that got around to warning you, you’d be somebody else’s victory (or lunch).

No.  A useful discriminator might use the closeup values, too, but primarily it would need to be an early warning system.  The cast of the shoulders, the swing of the hips, the rhythm of the step, all of these, plus a thousand other subliminal clues, have to identify the Other while he is still at a safe distance.

We human beings seem to be really acute detectors of small differences.  What makes someone register as one of Us as opposed to one of Them is a whole complex of body and facial movements, of gestures and rhythms, of colorations and decorations.  Members of another ethnic group, another religion, even someone from another neighborhood, can set off our alien alarms.

In America, where we are constantly confronted with members of the Other, we are perhaps less automatically reactive to our alarms than people in, say, Bosnia or Baghdad or Palestine.  One of the oddities of the recent history of those places is how neighbors, who have shared births and weddings and funerals, can suddenly turn murderous.  Whatever the similarity of their lives and experiences, each remains the eternal Other, doomed to live on sufferance.

But even here in America we can occasionally become acutely aware of each others differences.  Some border incident, some racial crime, some terror event, and we become suddenly alert to the body language, the accent, the peculiarity of dress of the next person we encounter unexpectedly.  Our Other detector may not always be on hyper-alert, but it seems it is always there, just beneath our civilized surface, ready to see our fellows as threats.

I suspect a whole lot of the worst barbarities in history can be accurately ascribed to our visceral response to the Other.

On the other hand, sometimes it can be benignly useful.

One Saturday, many years ago, I stopped by to visit some friends of mine.  They welcomed me and then announced that we would be having three guests for dinner.  Three Russians.

No real big surprise there.  My friends were on some cooperative list that welcomed foreign visitors, gave them a meal, and occasionally put them up for the night.  One time it was seven Argentine sailors.  So…three Russians.  Okay.  Granted, it was in the depths of the Cold War, but no real surprise.

When would they be arriving, I asked.  Oh, they said, we have to go pick them up…at Disneyland.

Picking people up at Disneyland on a summer Saturday.  Oh, joy.

Still, my host and I piled into his car and off we went.  Once on the road, I asked where we were going to meet them, praying they’d picked a good spot.

Out front, he said.  This set me to imagining they would be outside the park, just waiting for us.

Out front, at the Main Gate, he said.

OMG!  I’d been going to Disneyland since I was a little kid.  I’d even worked there.  We advised everyone to pick some distinct, you-can’t-miss-it spot to rendezvous.  The Main Gate?   Aside from the fact that that term covers about a city block, it is easily the most crowded spot in the park on a Saturday.

And just how, I asked, will we recognize them?  Hoping they would all be wearing purple shirts or something equally conspicuous.

Oh, my friend said casually, we didn’t talk about that.  Just look for three Russians.

At that point I pretty well gave up any hope of dinner.  I imagined we’d still be there looking for Russians until the crowd thinned out, sometime after midnight.

Sure enough, when we drove up, there were thousands of people. Of all shapes, sizes, and nationalities, performing the human imitation of Brownian Motion at the Main Gate.

This, I thought, is either impossible or it will take forever.

It took about 10 seconds.

There they were, three Russians, standing out like sore thumbs.  They weren’t dressed in Cossack uniforms, they weren’t sporting stainless steel teeth, they weren’t wearing furs on a California Saturday.

They were just three Russians.  Unmistakably, undeniably, uniquely Russian.

Standing there in the Uncanny Valley, waiting for us.

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