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Friday, August 27, 2004

Valley of the Uncanny

I've recently learned about a rather fascinating theory advanced by Dr. Masahiro Mori called "the uncanny valley." Mori, a roboticist, was interested in the characteristics of a robot that make it more, or less, appealing to humans. What he found is that as a machine takes on more and more human-like characteristics it becomes increasingly attractive to humans up to a point. Then, as the device enters a region where it appears and acts almost human, but not quite, assessments begin to decline precipitously, eventually becoming quite negative. If its human-like qualities continue to improve from this point, Mori hypothesizes that acceptance will recover and even, eventually, match that of an actual human as the device becomes essentially indistinguishable from its flesh-and-blood counterparts. Mori refers to this sudden decline and recovery just short of perfect human mimicry as the, "uncanny valley."

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The reasoning is as follows:

...if an entity is sufficiently non-humanlike, then the humanlike characters will tend to stand out and be noticed easily, generating empathy. On the other hand, if the entity is "almost human", then the non-human characteristics will be the ones that stand out, leading to a feeling of "strangeness" in the human viewer.

Now, you know about my interest in science fiction and robotics/aritifical intelligence (largely because I've posted on it before) but that isn't why I'm interested in this uncanny valley right now. Before we get to that, however, let's consider another website that discusses the use of the uncanny valley for generating mood and empathy in storytelling, be it in visual media (movies, plays, animation) or written media.

Written? Now that's interesting, because it suggests that perhaps this isn't just a visual impression of alieness but a cognitive or intellectual impression, as well. What this makes me wonder about is ideology and systems of thought. We have all been exposed to systems of thought that seem radically different from our own. I, for instance, spent a fair amount of time researching Scientology at one point (And came to the conclusion, based entirely in my own first-amendment-protected right to free speech, that it's utterly crazy, but no more so than most religious or quasi-religious ideologies) and can say that it is substantially different from my perspective. It didn't really disturb me, though. I thought it was odd, yes, but not really thretening. The interesting question, however, is: "Would it be more disturbing if it were more similar to my own views?" Perhaps like the appearance of a human-like simulacra, ideologies become most disturbing when they differ only sightly from our own, thus making those differences more apparent.

It's an interesting idea when you consider the degree of factionalism between relatively similar religious faiths. The different denominations of Christianity have been at each other's throats for centuries. Whether or not their current truce can last (And I have my doubts given the treatment of the Mormons back in the 19th century), strife still exists. Hell, from watching Jack van Impe (The best comedy on t.v. Also: I'm fairly sure Rexella is animatronic) I'm surprised we aren't still in the middle of the Thirty Years War. Similarly, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have had lengthy periods of conflict, despite their relative similarity (in that they draw on the same tradition). Obviously, the historical realities of the groups promoting each faith are highly relevant, but I find the parallel interesting.

Even more interesting, consider the recent arguments in sociology between the public and non-public folk, or the pro and anti-politicization camps. Then there's the skirmish Brayden and I have been having over on Pub Sociology about the virtues and vices of institutionalism and structuralism. The funny part is, Brayden and I overlap so much in our views, that really we're just disagreeing about details. This doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of that sociological grudge match between the micro and macro camps. As I've said before, we all have more in common than not, yet our arguments are possibly the most heated.

So, I find myself wondering if perhaps this uncanny valley is more widespread than Dr. Mori thought, and if maybe what we fear most are not those who disagree with us a lot, but those who disagree a little.


Blogger Brayden said...

Ha! You don't even know the meaning of skirmish yet....

It's funny you bring this up. I was discussing this issue with a professor the other day. Actually, we were talking about why proponents of two very similar, but distinctly labeled, theories in sociology seem to hate each other so much. The professor referred to it as the Cain/Abel syndrom. They're so closely related and fighting over such limited turf that it causes the battles to get ugly (and sometimes personal). What should have been an intellectual exchange among colleagues turns into bitter animosity. Strange field were in huh?

Friday, August 27, 2004 9:56:00 AM  

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