Down The Uncanny Valley Rabbit Hole

The other day, my boyfriend showed me the below tweet, which he stumbled upon on the interwebs. It immediately creeped me out, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

When we first started dating, my boyfriend talked extensively about the Simulation Theory, which hypothesizes that reality is merely an ultra-high-tech computer simulation in which we experience the sensations of living, working, and loving. Those hordes of people walking around with no opinions and no big dreams are just NPCs (non-player characters) run by some kind of computer simulation. If someone cuts me off in traffic or is talking jibberish, I label them an NPC and more on. I don’t think about it much lately, until now.

In 1970, Japanese roboticist Dr. Masahiro Mori presented the “Uncanny Valley” theory, which holds that as a simulation of a human being’s appearance and/or motion becomes increasingly accurate, there is very suddenly a point at which humans’ interest in the creation turns into utter repulsion. The trash bins with eyes rolling around Phoenix doesn’t bug me, nor do the I’m-too-lazy-to-walk-to-the-cafeteria robots I’ve seen around college campuses. Even the dancing Boston Dynamics are fine by me.

Cute, innocent robots that don’t appear to be planning to take over the world.

Battlestar Galactica may be my favorite series of all time, though the science fiction a dozen twists and turns down the “uncanny valley” water slide. The show is fantastic, I suspect, not on lieu of, but because it takes us to an uncomfortable place where question the nature of our own reality. No spoilers here but, as a lifelong hater of all things sci-fi, you should give this one a watch.

The advance of technology, particularly in robotics and artificial intelligence, are intriguing and extremely promising, yet the uncanny valley effect may prove to be a hindrance to human-android interactions as androids come to resemble humans more and more closely. Thus, scientists are trying to bridge the gap to make androids even more lifelike to cross Creeped-Out Canyon and enter Passably Human Heights.

There are many theories regarding the cause of Uncanny Valley, all of them tentative since the existence of the Valley itself is not yet verified. One idea is that empathy for clearly nonhuman entities is based upon the recognition of human characteristics in an irrefutably different context. The human mind recognizes the subject as an obvious nonhuman, and then is attracted to it by the presence of human qualities. Say, for example, a smiling stuffed animal or cartoon character.

Conversely, a response to a nearly-human-looking entity is exactly the reverse. The human mind’s first instinct is to label it ‘humanlike’ and only then notice the nonhuman characteristics of it, such as with a corpse or prosthetic limb. This causes the feeling of disgust and alienation. If the mind views something as a human being, we want it to both look and act just as a human being does. This may have ties to evolutionary psychology and the maintenance of the species’ gene pool.

Mori proposed that movement amplified the effect. “Familiarity” is used to mean “emotional response”, and several semi-human concepts are listed as reference points.

Now, getting back to that original tweet:

“One of the most frightening things I’ve ever heard is when someone pointed out that the existence of the uncanny valley implies that at some point there was an evolutionary reason to be afraid of something that looked human but wasn’t.”

David Szymanski

What are the possible explanations as to why this uncanny valley response exists? I did some reading, and I’ll list some suggestions I came across, in order of likest to pure tin foil hat.

  1. So, the research suggests that corpses elicit the strongest level of repulsion, so a possible, and possibly most likely, theory would be that epidemic and pandemic events taught human to avoid those that had dried from and may still be contaminated with the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, the Great Pestilence, Smallpox, HIV/AIDS, and even COVID-19. Uncanny valley may be a survival tactic. Those that hang around the dead and diseased won’t be hanging around for long.
  2. The response may have arisen from competition with other early members of the Homo genus, such as Neanderthals and Erectus 400,000 – 40,000 years ago. With similar-looking creatures, once had to be discerning to recognize the difference between one’s own tribe and the enemy. Research has shown that our species hunted down other bipedal species until homo sapiens were the last one standing.
  3. Humans fear death. Entities that look human but do not act as human remind us of our own mortality, which can be frightening. We are evolutionarily programmed to live and procreate, and triggering thoughts of death can inhibit that biological drive.
  4. Some other creature has evolved to resemble humans, the same way certain animals have evolved to look like plants and larger animals. Whether a true threat or a secret observer, such a creature may set off our not-quite-right radar.
  5. And, finally, the first thought that came to mind when I read that terrible uncanny valley musing: aliens. Without evidence, I feel quite confident that there is extraterrestrial intelligent life in our universe. What if we’re visited by (or have a galactic run-in with) human-like aliens, or what if aliens are already here? Actually, my mother-in-law gives off some uncanny valley vibes, so maybe…

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