The Polar Express is the most unnerving film in the last 25 years. I chose my words carefully. I didn’t say the scariest, the most startling or the most cringe-worthy — I said the most unnerving. If you have seen the film or at least the trailer, you know exactly what I mean. Just look at this:
You may be asking, “Why do I have warm, fuzzy feelings for the first two images and utter contempt, loathing and fear for the last image? The latter resembles humans the most, so why do I have this visceral negative response? Is this a thing?” Yes, this is a thing.
Welcome to the uncanny valley, boys and girls.
Wikipedia describes the uncanny valley as “a hypothesized relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to such an object. The concept of the uncanny valley suggests humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit uncanny, or strangely familiar, feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers.”
In other words, as characters look more human-like, our affinity for them grows until the point that they come close to resembling us. This creepiness has been noted in several other films and has recently been lampooned on HBO’s hit comedy Silicon Valley and the YouTube show Good Mythical Morning.
So we’ve established the fact that we have these reactions, but the question now is “why?” Here are some interesting theories:
- Mortality salience: when encountering life-like robots, we are confronted with the reality of our own death and the innate fear that we a) have, like robots, no souls and b) can be replaced by said robots.
- Pathogen avoidance: Robots in the valley look “sick” or resemble corpses, and our biological mechanism to avoid things that can negatively affect our health kicks in.
- Violation of human identity: We judge objects in the valley not on non-human terms, but on human terms by virtue of their closeness to human likeness. Ergo, we notice the characteristics that are unlike us in their overall likeness of us, and this give us a sense of strangeness in our perception of them. It also rubs up against our identity as special (think of the biblical concept of Imago Dei — that we are created in the image of God). These robots were created in a lab and look like us, so “get thee hence.”
There are many other theories, but what matters is that the uncanny valley does exist. So in the world of increased technological advances, what is the filmmaker, roboticist or game designer to do? Can technology overcome the uncanny valley, or are we doomed to repeat the failures of The Polar Express?
Most filmmakers and game designers are aware that the valley desperately needs to be avoided at all costs and come up with ways to work around it. The typical response resorts to a cartoonish or stylized look of its characters. Others bravely attempt to overcome the valley. A recent example is the decision to revive General Tarkin of the 1977 film Star Wars for the franchise spin-off Rogue One. Famously played by the late Peter Cushing, filmmakers used CGI to recreate Tarkin’s character for the film:
Tarkin’s recreation is a noble achievement in visual effects to be sure, but it still not totally out of the valley. It isn’t quite right. As a 3D motion graphics designer, I’ve dabbled in the CGI arena. I can usually tell what is wrong with animations, but with General Tarkin, it’s so close that I cannot quite put my finger on why it’s still a little “off.”
Granted, human-likeness replication is much closer in the arena of CGI than it is in robotics. As technology and human understanding of the body advances, it does seem likely that a bridge will eventually be built over uncanny valley to healthy human-likeness. This inevitability may have filmmakers and game designers rejoicing, but the rest of us may still feel a sense of uneasiness. Do I really want to be engaging with a robot that I thought was a human? Did I just swipe right on Artificial Intelligence?
At this point, none of us would be surprised if a life-like robot walked out of Silicon Valley. This concept is something that has received a lot of attention in the entertainment industry for years. Think of Ridley Scott’s 1982 thriller Blade Runner, SyFy’s reboot of Battlestar Galactica, the recently critically-acclaimed film Ex Machina and of course HBO’s newest gem of a series, Westworld. All these works explore metaphysical questions on the true nature of being, existence and reality and make you sit-up in bed at 3 a.m. pondering your own self-awareness.
All to say, SELF-AWARE ROBOTS THAT LOOK LIKE US ARE COMING!