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The Uncanny Valley and Matter Out of Place

One of the first things they teach you when you study anthropology is that people need categories to understand the world and find their place within it. Whether that’s categories of identity such as gender, race, nationality, religion, or practical and scientific ones, mammal, reptile, insect, amphibian, and so on, even moral, the categories we invent to organise our world are endless. These classifications are part of what we call social constructs. Calling something a social construct does not deny its importance, rather it should make us question its existence. Countries are a social construct, invented by humans, divided by imaginary lines we call borders. However, it would be foolish to think that countries are not ‘real’, they exist because we invented them, and we choose (or not) to abide by their rules and to respect their layout. Moreover, their existence has real life consequences: turning away refugees on the basis that they do not have the ‘right’ to enter a specific country, to cross an invented yet seemingly real border for example. Despite these social constructs having been devised by us, which could (and sometimes should) strip them of their essentiality, we choose time and time again to make them a reality. Such is the case for borders.

But what happens when something cannot be classified? When we cannot put it in any of the predetermined categories we have invented. Mary Douglas (1966) theorised that dirt is ‘matter out of place’, meaning that our perception of what is and is not dirty is reliant on where we think things ought to be. A classic example of this is hair: hair on one’s head is usually desirable and positive, hair in one’s shower drain is neither. Scholars have posited that those things and beings we cannot organise and therefore struggle to understand often become entities humans come to fear or worship. Not dirt of course, but matter out of place nonetheless. The pangolin is often used as an example of those beings we do not know how to categorise. It is not a fish yet has scales, it is by all considerations an anomaly. The pangolin’s strange and unmatchable appearance has given it a special and somewhat powerful status among the communities it neighbours (medicinal benefits, at the heart of certain rituals and so on). On that note let me introduce the Uncanny Valley.

Researchers have found that a robot’s likability is directly linked to its human likeness. To be honest I cannot truly imagine robots resembling anything other than us humans, we are pretty self-centred and do tend to lack imagination. Most sci fi movies conceptualise aliens as humanoid beings: if we think of E.T, Mars Attack, Paul, even Alien, all with a face, four limbs, standing on two legs. The realm of the possible only extends as far as our minds do. So, it’s really no surprise that our robots resemble us, when even creatures from outer space do. However, in 1970, Masahiro Mori recounted a surprising phenomenon: although humans tend to find humanoid robots likeable in general, when said robots begin to resemble us too closely, but are still distinguishable from a flesh and blood human, they become eerie, even repulsive to look at. He coined the term ‘bukimi no tani’ or the Uncanny Valley to illustrate this tendency.

The most recent and blatant example of a robot from the Uncanny Valley I can give you is the Ameca robot from the company Engineered Arts who sent a chill down my spine when I first saw it smile. The same can be said for Sophia the robot and her infamous wink. Both are the result of years of research, dedicated work and astounding amounts of money, but both are rather disturbing to look at. Robot designers, computer engineers, movie animators and pretty much anyone who creates humanoid things, have to navigate around the Uncanny Valley. If they are not careful millions of dollars can be wasted on futile projects that most are repulsed by.

An example of a movie that disturbed its audience with its humanoid, computer generated characters is the movie Cats (2019), adapted to the silver screen from its eponymous musical. This movie somehow thought it would be a good idea to give humans fur, tails, whiskers and cat ears whilst keeping human facial features and standing on two legs. The movie was not well received with The Guardian’s film critics describing the experience as ‘will haunt viewers for generations’ (2019). The movie cost 95 million dollars.

There is a tipping point in robot development and evolution where a robot stops looking like a robot, and begins looking almost human, emphasis on almost. It is this ‘almost’ that seems to bother us so much: almost a soulless machine, almost a fellow human but not quite. The question remains: why are we so bothered by the almost but not quite human? I believe, along with others, that it has something to do with a false sense of trust we initially and perhaps unconsciously want to endow those who are belonging to the Uncanny Valley. For a moment we recognise something familiar in them, a fleeting sensation we are faced with ourselves. Our brain almost wants to fit them into the human category, but small details, something in the eye, in their smile, or in their staggered movement remind us that they are mere machinery. The realisation, perhaps the lie these androids represent, is at the root of our uneasiness. In this deception we can identify the struggle of placing these odd humanoids into one category or the other, therefore we come to fear them.

We have not yet reached the point where our real-life robots are indistinguishable from humans, but we might not be so far from reaching that stage in robotics. Hence the topic of the Uncanny Valley, this moment right before the android becomes one of us, where we fear it for its imperfections and resent its almost humanness has and will continue to be extremely relevant, 50 years after it was originally theorised.


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