| At the Corner of Technology and Culture

The Waning of the Uncanny Valley

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.

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There are 2 Comments to "The Waning of the Uncanny Valley"

  • bbogart says:

    Hi Nora,

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot too. I want to first digress into a story I tell often regarding fidelity and transparent (convincing) representations. When I first saw Jurassic Park I was totally enthralled, there was not a single frame I was not totally convinced by, the T-rex looked real, totally real. Years later I re-watched it and was disappointed by how poor the effects appeared to be, my sense that the T-rex was visually convincing had disappeared. What changed?

    It’s quite possible that the first novel experience of the movie caused me to colour my perceptions in an idealistic light. Another option is that I’ve reconstructed those memories to fit my first impression of being visually convinced. I prefer to think the change was not in how my memory is represented, but in my perception.

    If that is the case then my sense of what counts as convincing has changed. Not only does this imply that the previous experience was an perceptual illusion of reality (obvious), but that my sense of reality actually changed—what counts as real and convincing. If so, these representations are not moving toward a greater and greater similarity with reality, but actually changing the way we see reality. It’s like Zeno’s paradox, the closer you get to reality, the further away you realize reality is. It is not reality that has changed, its our conception and perception of reality that has changed.

    In my studies of the cognitive science of perception, as part of my PhD work on the construction of a machine that dreams, it is clear that perception is constructive. What we think about what is in front of us changes how we see it. We are far beyond objectivity here. Our perceptions are a function of both our expectations (unconscious and conscious) and the light entering our eyes.

    Our perception continues to change as visual culture changes around us.

    I’d like to end on an interesting observation that occurred to me recently. I find tilt-shift photography (technically tilt photography) really fascinating. In short, a macro subject can appear to us as miniature simply because of a severe decrease of the depth of field. (which is all a tilt lens does). Since our perception does not have this kind of narrow depth of field when viewing small objects, then were did this perception come from? How could it come from anywhere but our experience of small subjects as photographs with very narrow depths of field? In short our visual culture has literally changed how we perceive the world.

    So the question of fidelity and the uncanny is perhaps more a question of conceptualisation and perception of reality than it is about a technical practise of making representations increasingly “real”.

    In Program or Be Programmed, Douglas Rushkoff says:

    “…our inability to distinguish between a virtual reality simulation and the real world will have less to do with the increasing fidelity of simulation than the decreasing perceptual abilities of us humans.” p.64

    I would not say that our perception is “decreasing”, but that it is being modulated by our visual experience, which is dominated by constructed representations of visual culture. “Decreasing” is a bit too strong a value judgement in my view.

  • Nora says:

    Thanks so much for your comments. Very thought-provoking. The movies question is interesting. It’s like watching the original King Kong: It’s so cartoonish, and yet, apparently it thrilled audiences at the time.

    I hadn’t really thought about the ‘constructive’ element of perception. Very interesting!

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