The uncanny valley was a term originally coined by Masahiro Mori in 1970 to describe the eerie and unsettling response of people when confronted with an android that is not quite human. Despite very little quantitative data on the term, it is one of the most valiant terms in the field of robotics and has enjoyed great popularity and debate since its inception.
Although the "uncanny valley" was formulated within the context of robotics research, the term uncanny has a long critical tradition and should be considered a paradigmatic example for how Cyborg Anthropology can contribute to the discourse on technological interfaces. The uncanny arises when one is confronted with something that transgresses the boundaries of our conceptions of normal, and thus seems to be one of the key responses invoked in confrontations with the border between humans and machines.
Breaking Down the Term
Valley: The "valley" refers to the graph of human-likeness. On the X-axis, zero is an entity with no human likeness, while infinity represents the perfectly-human human. As one progresses from zero, the Y-value (likability, comfort) steadily rises, until it drastically falls when it is about to approach perfect human. This dip in the line is the "valley".
Uncanny: The uncanny (German: Das Unheimliche) is a term that goes back to the turn of the century, and literally translates to "un-home-ly". Freud wrote an article on the term and it has been revisited over the years by many critical theorists. The feeling of the uncanny arises when one is confronted with an entity that is familiar yet strange, causing a cognitive dissonance of repulsion and attraction that usually leads to a rejection of the object.
The uncanny is a familiar concept to anthropologists. Viewing another culture that has radically different conceptions of humor, social protocol, aesthetic beauty, and moral judgement can cause the uncanny response. Rather than viewing the uncanny as a specific dynamic within robotics, cyborg anthropologists have the perspective to look at this term in its larger context of operating at the border of hegemonic comfort and identity formation. By recognizing the uncanny in these larger (and older) phenomenon, cyborg anthropologists can re-contextualize the term through a more general theory of humanity and cognitive function.
Some examples of the Uncanny
- A robot with incredibly realistic skin and facial expressions, but very jerky movements.
- An animal that acts exactly like a human, such as a primate performing an action or making an expression that we immediately recognize as startlingly human
- A human who has a neurological disorder that disrupts our preconceived notions of normal behavior (Turrets, Neuro-muscular Disorders)
- An uncanny resemblance, which puts into question our visual basis for determining identity
- Uncannily precise: A phenomena that is eerily coincidental, possibly causing us to question our preconceived notions of the structure of reality.
Insofar as the uncanny is used as an excuse to reject anything that does not conform to our hegemonic notions of humanity, it should be viewed with extreme suspicion. But the uncanny is a culturally conditioned concept and will naturally become more elastic as time goes on. The uncanny is a primary defense that something's not quite right. It may be our "uncanny radar" that allows us to differentiate in the Turing Test, and thus allow us to recognize "authentic thought" as opposed to mere symbol manipulation.
Relationship with the Grotesque
The term bears strong relationships with the concept of the grotesque. Insofar as the grotesque is used as a derogatory term to refer to a play upon the human form, the grotesque is not useful and potentially regressive. This usage is sometimes referred to by transhumanists as the "yuk-factor". But there is another use of the grotesque that celebrates the grotesque, a use that goes back to the Russian Philosopher Michal Bhaktin. Bhaktin uses the grotesque as a term to celebrate the carnivalesque beauty of the lower-bodily stratum. In this context, the grotesque is used to describe the wonderful confluence of the bodily movements (pissing, fecal matter, sex) and their emphasis on embodiment. During the Medieval Carnival, the social and metaphysical hierarchy was reversed and effectively dismantled during the period of the festival. Part of these festivities included the reversal of the medieval theology of bodily transcendence, and a corresponding emphasis on bodily expulsions. An emphasis on the positive qualities of the grotesque may curtail the quickly emerging (and philosophically questionable) theology of disembodied transcendence endemic to the transhumanist movement. The grotesque is a response deriving from play upon bodily form, while the uncanny is a response deriving from a play upon conceptual form, but both will inevitably play a key role in how cyborgs are received, judged, and integrated into mainstream culture.
- Mori, Masahiro (1970). Bukimi no tani the uncanny valley. Energy, 7, 33–35. (Japanese). http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html
- Freud, Sigmund. Trans: David McLintock. Uncanny. Penguin Classics, 2003. Originally published in 1919.
- Bakhtin, Mikhail. Trans: Helene Iswolsky. Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press, 2009.