The Uncanny Valley Is Our Best Defense
Our bodies recognize the dangers of simulation, and we should too
While humans are drawn to and empowered by paradox, our market-driven technologies and entertainment appear to be fixed on creating perfectly seamless simulations.
We can pinpoint the year movies or video games were released based on the quality of their graphics: the year they figured out steam, the year they learned to reflect light, or the year they made fur ripple in the wind. Robot progress is similarly measured by the milestones of speech, grasping objects, gazing into our eyes, or wearing artificial flesh. Each improvement reaches toward the ultimate simulation: a movie, virtual reality experience, or robot with such high fidelity that it will be indistinguishable from real life.
It’s a quest that will, thankfully, never be achieved. The better digital simulations get, the better we humans get at distinguishing between them and the real world. We are in a race against the tech companies to develop our perceptual apparatus faster than they can develop their simulations.
The hardest thing for animators and roboticists to simulate is a living human being. When an artificial figure gets too close to reality — not so close as to fool us completely, yet close enough that we can’t tell quite what’s wrong — that’s when we fall into a state of unease known as the “uncanny valley.” Roboticists noticed the effect in the early 1970s, but moviemakers didn’t encounter the issue until the late 1980s, when a short film of a computer-animated human baby induced discomfort and rage in test audiences. That’s why filmmakers choose to make so many digitally animated movies about toys, robots, and cars. These objects are easier to render convincingly because they don’t trigger the same mental qualms.
We experience vertigo in the uncanny valley because we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of years fine-tuning our nervous systems to read and respond to the subtlest cues in real faces. We perceive when someone’s eyes squint into a smile, or how their face flushes from the cheeks to the forehead, and we also — at least subconsciously — perceive the absence of these organic barometers. Simulations make us feel like we’re engaged with the nonliving, and that’s creepy.
We confront this same sense of inauthenticity out in the real world, too. It’s the feeling we get when driving past fake pastoral estates in the suburbs, complete with colonial pillars and horse tie rings on the gates. Or the strange verisimilitude of Las Vegas’ skylines and Disney World’s Main Street. It’s also the feeling of trying to connect with a salesperson who sticks too close to their script.
In our consumer culture, we are encouraged to assume roles that aren’t truly authentic to who we are. In a way, this culture is its own kind of simulation, one that requires us to make more and more purchases to maintain the integrity of the illusion.
We’re not doing this for fun, like trying on a costume, but for keeps, as supposedly self-realized lifestyle choices. Instead of communicating to one another through our bodies, expressions, or words, we do it through our purchases, the facades on our homes, or the numbers in our bank accounts. These products and social markers amount to pre-virtual avatars, better suited to game worlds than real life.
Most of all, the uncanny valley is the sense of alienation we can get from ourselves. What character have we decided to play in our lives? That experience of having been cast in the wrong role, or in the wrong play entirely, is our highly evolved BS detector trying to warn us that something isn’t right — that there’s a gap between reality and the illusion we are supporting. This is a setup, our deeper sensibilities are telling us. Don’t believe. It may be a trap. And although we’re not Neanderthals being falsely welcomed into the enemy camp before getting clobbered, we are nonetheless the objects of an elaborate ruse — one that evolution couldn’t anticipate.
Our uneasiness with simulations — whether they’re virtual reality, shopping malls, or social roles — is not something to be ignored, repressed, or medicated, but rather felt and expressed. These situations feel unreal and uncomfortable for good reasons. The importance of distinguishing between human values and false idols is at the heart of most religions, and is the starting place for social justice.
The uncanny valley is our friend.