Why It Feels Like The Tech Industry Is Stalling Out And Why That’s Not True

In the “uncanny valley,” technology is just short of outperforming real life

The Uncanny Valley

The technology industry is currently suspended in what philosophers have long-since referred to as the “uncanny valley”: a space where technological platforms that imitate real-life interactions, such as Amazon’s “Alexa” and self-driving Uber vehicles, are just shy of being indiscernible from what they seek to imitate — and that makes some consumers uneasy.

Philosophers have referred to this space in technological development as the “uncanny valley.” That metaphorical crevasse between what we know as human reality and what we know as virtual reality has acted as a speed bump affecting many modern technologies from acquiring mainstream application.

In 1970, Masahiro Mori first identified what became later known as “the uncanny valley.” The term was first used to address robotics and advancements in humanoid-like machines. Mori theorized a point where machines made to appear as humans would be extremely discomforting to observers. But that once those machines became more indistinguishable from human resemblance, Mori theorized, they could be enjoyed.

The “uncanny valley” pictured. (Source)

Although concepts of the uncanny valley were conceived to apply to robotics and animators, the software development industry has also fallen trap to a canyon that cultivates general consumer uneasiness.

The modern era of self-driving cars, automated food assemblers, personal home assistants and the like, all contain software that emulate tasks previously relegated only to human perception and intuition. Machines not only perform these tasks to satisfactory levels, they do so with more precision and accuracy than thought possible.

Devices like Amazon “Alexa” and Google “Home” are constantly learning from our behavior using cloud computing and neural network automated intelligence algorithms. The algorithms that power our user experiences online are constantly absorbing information and making adjustments to our experiences in real-time in order to keep our eyes glued to screens and our fingers clicking around their platforms.

So alas, we reach a point in technology where the software being marketed to consumers has dipped into an uncanny valley: the capabilities of this software are outperforming human equivalents and consumers are skeptical. But this phase in technology is totally normal, and we should not fear it’s effect on our ability to drive technology further.

Prior to self-driving cars and their likes, the first-person shooter video game industry experienced its own uncanny valley. From a November 2013 CNN article:

Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg said people want to be able to do things in video games they can’t do in real life, but for first-person shooter games, there should be a limit.
“The genre does give an incredibly visceral opportunity for us to put people in fairly extraordinary situations with a very high realism, but with also a very good deal of poetic license,” Hirshberg said. “We want to get the details right to suspend your disbelief, but our developers take you on a fictitious thrill ride.”

Even today, the first-person shooter industry remains on the less-realistic side of the uncanny valley, careful not to tread into territories that simulate real-life violence in indiscernible ways.

Self-driving car often out-perform human drivers under identical scenarios.

In modern times, tech giants such as former Googler Andy Rubin, are seeking to create an “everything OS” that enables seamless technology integration into our daily lives. The tech industry is holding back while technology develops that can support a world where everything is connected effortlessly, and the technological improvements on the horizon can be brought into reality without consumer resistance.

But until Rubin’s vision of an invisible “smart” world becomes a more technologically feasible reality, the industry will remain suspended and conflicted by the desire to progress and the hesitations of an automated world.