I’ll freely admit to having a bit of an obsession with the not-quite-human. I’m fascinated by celebrity cosmetic surgery, for instance, with the way it turns beautiful, ageing people into glossy, puffy, simulacra. And then, of course, there are the robots. It’s in equal measures fascinating and creepy to look at humanoid robots, parsing what it is about them that looks not quite right, when everything about them, looked at individually, seems, well, human.
Equally interesting is our response to robotic animals. For the most part, they’re made to be cute, like Aibo the dog (though in the above case, I’m with the cat!) When we see the workings of the machine in combination with the animalistic, though, our reactions may be quite different. I remember, for instance, the first time I saw a video of Boston Dynamics‘ Big Dog project:
I mean, it’s amazing, right? And yet also creepy. The mirroring of an animal’s gait combined with the headless mechanical creature is spooky.
Fast forward a few years, and New Scientist has the story of Boston Dynamics releasing a new video of a cheetah-like robot able to run 30 km/hour:
It’s equally amazing, and yet not creepy, not for me, at least. Is it something about the design or the setting that makes it seem more normal, or is it the waning of the Uncanny Valley? Perhaps we’re getting so used to the not-quite-animate in everything from video games, to hyper-realistic animated movies, to the way we anthropomorphize our Roombas, to cosmetic surgery, that we’re bridging that Uncanny Valley. We’re not waiting until the tech gets realistic enough that we can’t distinguish it from the natural; we’re just more comfortable with the natural-unnatural hybrid.