October 30, 2013

Sam Visits the Uncanny Valley

Sam, in younger, more innocent days

It’s hard to escape the uncanny valley these days, even if you’re a dog. Our puppy Sam learned that lesson during a visit to the vet last week.

A robotics professor coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe the discomfort we feel when we perceive that something inanimate is trying too hard to convince us it’s alive. As Wikipedia puts it, “when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.”

Sam’s experience at the vet made me think that definition may lean a bit too heavily on the “human.”

Sam is a six-month-old yellow lab, and she’s a sweetheart. I can literally count on one hand the occasions when she’s barked or growled at anyone or anything.  None of those occasions happened at the vet, which is why we were so surprised last week when Sam let out a couple of barks and started growling as soon as we took our seats in the waiting room. 

What set her off, it turned out, was a decorative wooden dog in a corner of the waiting room. It was a blocky, slightly comic version of a terrier, about two feet high, with a combative expression on its face and a colorful scarf around its neck. Sam was deeply suspicious. The fur on her back raised and her lip curled. Instinctively she seemed to know that something wasn’t right here – that this “creature” was trying to pull a fast one. Sam had entered the uncanny valley.

I know how she felt. We humans are having our own trouble figuring out what’s real and what isn’t these days. Those doubts are, in turn, symptoms of more general anxieties about where we stand in relation to machines.

We live in an age when technology is ascendant, and we’re thrilled by all the things our devices are doing for us. Our enthusiasms, though, are accompanied by an undercurrent of fear. Technology gives us power, but we know that power cuts both ways. Subconsciously we’re aware it can turn against us.

This is the essence of a theory called the Fourth Discontinuity, which derives from a comment of Sigmund Freud’s. Through most of our history, he said, human beings were confident the universe revolved around them. In the past 450 years, however, that cherished self-image has suffered three major blows. The first of these was the Copernican Revolution, when we learned that Earth is a satellite of the Sun, rather than the other way around. The second was Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which showed that man was descended from apes. The third, Freud modestly contended, was his theory of psychoanalysis, which demonstrated that our thoughts and our behaviors are not entirely in our control, but instead are influenced by drives and conflicts hidden in the deepest regions of our personalities.


The fourth discontinuity is a recent addition to the list that takes into account how quickly machine intelligence has advanced in the past fifty years. Just as the second discontinuity acknowledged that we can no longer claim to be an order of nature distinct from and superior to animals, the fourth discontinuity holds that we can no longer claim to be an order of nature that is distinct from and superior to machines. The result is an ongoing identity crisis.

Our feelings toward animals today have a lot to do with our misgivings about technology. In his book, The Metaphysics of Apes: Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary, Raymond Corbey notes that throughout history there have been periods when cultures have emphasized the differences between humans and animals and periods when they’ve emphasized their similarities. The publication of Darwin’s theory provoked a swing of the pendulum toward discontinuity; people wanted to prove how absurd it was to suggest our ancestors lived in trees. Today the pendulum has swung decidedly in the opposite direction. Not a day goes by, it seems, when there isn’t a new book, article or study talking about how much humans share in common with elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees and dogs. Especially dogs.

Animals serve as antidotes to the Fourth Discontinuity. If our interactions with technology make us feel, on some level, inferior, it makes sense that we take comfort in our kinship with animals. Sam’s behavior at the vet can be counted as another sign of our affinity. Together we stand on one side of the uncanny valley; robots and wooden terriers are on the other. Dogs are indeed man’s best friend, now more than ever.


(An earlier post on creepy technologies addresses related issues.)

©Doug Hill, 2013

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