Friday, 3 March 2017

Uncanny Valley: A compass for a digital morality?

Mannequin in Old Melbourne Gaol. Photo: Flickr/GSV CC BY 2.0
As a child of about seven or eight years old, I recall visiting the Old Melbourne Gaol, and feeling completely creeped out by the mannequins, especially when seeing one in a cell through the peephole.

Tonight, I saw two different mannequins, dressed as a male and a female. Although less irrational than when I was younger, I felt no less creeped out.

It turns out that there is a term to describe this unease: the "uncanny valley".

I don't want to spend all day explaining the concept, so the short version is that, in 1970, Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, developed the hypothesis that human-like things are creepy, depending on how true to life they are.

Put simply, nobody gets creeped out until the thing gets closer to looking like a human (whether stationary or moving), but where it is not quite right. Think of those creepy "time out" dolls.

But apparently, it gets less creepy after a certain point (I am not convinced by this - to me it's all creepy). Below is the diagram explaining why it's called a "valley".

Uncanny Valley: Nobody cares until it starts to look like, but not quite be, a human. WikimediaCC BY-SA 3.0
I rediscovered this feeling recently when reading an article in the Paris Review about Duane Hanson. Hanson made creepy human figures and then took Polaroid photographs of them. Just looking at the photos in the article creeped me out. I am so glad I am not Duane Hanson.

Then I remembered why the idea was so fresh in my mind. In Adelaide last month, I visited the SA Gallery and saw the work Woman with Laundry Basket. It creeped me out. I didn't know this until just now, but it is one of Hanson's pieces.

But I had just been at the SA Museum's "Curious Beasts" exhibition which had a number of examples of vintage "mermaids" and other bits and pieces of fantastic scams created by taxidermists for parlour tricks. I found these creepy, too.

After the exhibition, I walk into the stuffed animals of Africa part of the museum. Looking into the eyes of tigers and lions and hyenas and other beasts that once feasted on my rather distant ancestors put the wind up me, too. Around the corner, and there is an enormous lion sitting in a glass case. AND ITS BLOODY TAIL MOVED. 

Turns out it has a car windscreen wiper motor in it, and it flicks the tail every 45 seconds or so. Creepy.

So when I walk over to the museum and see the pregnant woman with the laundry basket, dressed as many women did when I was seven or eight years old, I was on creepy high alert. In the South Australian Gallery, you can walk right up to the figure. 

You can see the details of her veins. If she had moved I would have died of fright. Thank goodness there were no windscreen wiper motors in sight.

The difference between moving and stationary in creepy factor is slight, but between moving and stationary, moving increases the I-am-going-to-die-of-fright factor considerably. Thank goodness none of those mannequins in the Old Melbourne Gaol were mobile.

Do you want to see what a contemporary freaky creepy moving but stuck in the uncanny valley thing looks like? Check this out: http://www.cubo.cc/creepygirl/. If you don't trust me, then go to the website and use the link from there. And then tell me this isn't creepy.

So why is this of interest? It turns out that DNA could solve the data storage problem. What?

Data can be stored on DNA, and DNA can be stored on a CD. I am at maximum creepiness. And this I learn from the CSIRO.



That's right, the human genome takes up only 3.3 gigabytes. We could have put ourselves on hard-drives years ago.

This reminds me of the atomic bomb. We don't know how to save the planet, but we do know how to destroy it. That uncanny valley is just getting wider, isn't it?

One area that political science is only just starting to address is the concept of a digital morality. Having grown up with computers and the internet, I have come full circle. I've adopted technology early on, reached saturation point, and most recently, gone into slow mode. The other is not sustainable.

Yet scientists are driving us into a digital Back to Methuselah (A Metabiological Pentateuch), by George Bernard Shaw. In Shaw's self-proclaimed, often over-looked masterpiece, some people learn how to live until they are 1,000 years old. Not through scientific advancement, but through individual maturity, or wisdom and experience.

The trick was that people only needed to know how to live long lives. The "short-livers" did not have this capability and could barely survive in the presence of "long-livers". 

If we are to believe commentators of Shaw's work, his theme is political, where short-livers need government, but once humans can live for 1,000 years, they are, as competent individuals, capable of living without government.

But what if we can live for 1,000 years, not because of our wisdom and experience, but because of machines that not only interact but become part of people?

This sounds far-fetched. But the CSIRO has already made "bits" of humans, using 3D printers, that are surgically implanted.

Much like atomic bombs, we don't know how to live for 1,000 years, but we may do so anyway because of machines. I've come a long way from being creeped out in the Old Melbourne Gaol. Now I am falling down the uncanny valley and bashing my head all the way down.

Which brings me to my point. Why do we feel creeped out by human-like things? Is there some instinctual warning going on here? Is it a new thing? Have we, as humans, developed new instincts to warn us of the danger we are heading towards?

While I do not have the answers, I do suspect that there is something in the uncanny valley hypothesis that might provide a compass for developing a philosophy, an ethic, or maybe just an idea, of a sense of a digital morality.

While I have long hoped to be dead well before all of this became plausible, each new day makes the case for a concept of digital morality ever more urgent. 

Otherwise, like the atomic bomb, we will be capable of doing something before we know whether we should even be capable of doing such a thing in the first place. Regrettably, I don't hold much hope for the future.


Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio