Making a valley out of a ditch

typed for your pleasure on 26 January 2011, at 7.21 pm

Sdtrk: ‘Reinforced Bio-drug use 72mm’ by Masonna vs Speedranch

Back in November, ‘Shouting etc etc’ had a spike in visits due to the piece on Sidore and I on Asylum’s website. Then it dropped off for a few days, but then it accelerated again, only I couldn’t suss where the second wave of referrals was coming from. That is, until I received a comment from a reader, who had explained that Cracked.com had linked to me, in a roundabout way. They had a story, which referenced the edited version of Meghan Laslocky’s article on Salon.com, which links to (what’s left of) my wife’s vanity site, ‘Kitten with a Whip!’, and that, obviously, is linked to me.
So what was Cracked going on about? ‘5 Creepy Ways Humans Are Plunging Into the Uncanny Valley’. Coming in at number five? RealDolls. Yeah, you can doubtless hear my eyes rolling from wherever you happen to be reading this.

Longtime readers are painfully aware that I have issues with the supposed issues that people have with the so-called uncanny valley. For one, noted roboticist David Hanson, who is the closest person the United states has to Japanese roboticist and creator of the Actroid series of Gynoids, Hiroshi Ishiguro, doesn’t take much stock in that school of thought, either. ‘The “uncanny valley” is a theory, but people treat it like science’, he’s quoted as saying, and I’m inclined to agree with him.
Just to remind you: basically, the whole ‘uncanny valley’ thing is a hypothesis developed by roboticist Masahiro Mori around 1970, which states that the closer the appearance of something approaches that of an Organik being, the more likely it is to drastically affect the emotions of those who see it, usually in a negative fashion. Here’s the oft-used visual aid:

The closer a robot gets in appearance, movement, and behaviour to Organik life, the more most people find it unsettling. Which I personally view as being contradictory and nonsensical, but hey.
That’s a brief summary of the uncanny valley hypothesis; you can check out the 12″ extended dance remix over on Wikipedia.

It’s been often argued that the reason why a lot of Organiks are averse to Synthetiks is because they’re either expressionless and emotionless, or the emotions they display are false. I’ve always maintained that if Organiks already understand that a Synthetik human is an artificial one, hence the distinction between ‘Organik’ and ‘Synthetik’ (more on that later), then there shouldn’t be an issue. If a person of reasonable intelligence — yes yes, the numbers are dwindling rapidly, I know — is already aware that the being they’ve encountered is affictitious, then their reaction should be at the most slightly startled, as opposed to the over-the-top feelings detractors claim to have of revulsion.
As regards to the lack of facial expression that a number of current Synthetiks possess, the respective R&D departments are working on it. Humanoid robotics admittedly still has a bit of a ways to go, but in the past decade, it’s come a long way. That’s what’s known as progress. General society seems to have this enormously unrealistic (ha ha) expectation that any Androids and Gynoids that emerge from a lab are going to be completely indistinguishable from Organik humans, and unless they are, society will loudly decry the in-between stages. Despite realism obviously being the goal, that’s simply not going to occur right out of the gate. That’s as if someone in the mid-Eighties, upon seeing those huge brick-style cellphones, decided they still weren’t good enough because they couldn’t watch MTV on the tiny LED screen. I know, I know, ‘what’s MTV’. But again, anyone with a modicum of intelligence would be able to overlook the aesthetic and mobile shortcomings that an artificial human may have, as long as those shortcomings aren’t entirely drastic.
And regarding the programmes that a Synthetik would eventually have that would resemble emotions; again, if you already know the person is a robot, then your suspension of disbelief should theoretically kick in and solve the problem. Besides, Organik humans lie all the time! Why don’t more people have issues with that fact?

Body language interpretation is another factor in the uncanny valley scenario. Those who subscribe to that ‘theory’ cite that their feelings of creepiness (I hate that word) stem from the way current Androids and Gynoids move — again, as the mechanical technology is still being developed, it’s somewhat stilted and jerky. It has been argued that biological humans find less-than-fluid movement to be unpleasant due to centuries of conditioning: if we encounter a person that moves in an unfamiliar manner, alarms go off in our brains saying SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THIS PERSON AVOID AVOID. However, using that line of thought, why don’t most people recoil in horror when they see someone that has Parkinson’s disease? Or cerebral palsy? Or those prone to epileptic seizures? Well, in less-enlightened times, people did, and pronounced them possessed, or worse. Just as an intelligent society can interpret a person afflicted with a syndrome or disorder as not something to run in fear from, by that logic, someone observing a contemporary Android or Gynoid should be able to say to themselves, ‘ah, that’s more than likely a Synthetik’.
Organik humans can parse the body language of non-human beings, if they’re open-minded, and are given enough time to do so. We’ve discovered that if a cat purrs, and a dog wags his tail, they are more than likely content. We’ve also discovered that different species don’t necessarily display the same emotions in the same fashion — if you see a cat wagging his tail, chances are he ain’t exactly happy, as another example. Now if humans can read, with some degree of certainty, the body language of animals, then there should be no reason Organiks shouldn’t be able to learn the body language of Synthetiks. Especially when, technically speaking, the body language of a humanoid robot would be specifically designed to mimic that of an Organik, and be therefore easier to understand than that of an animal.

One fear that the uncanny valley elicits in a lot of people would be an existential one: for some observers, seeing an Android or a Gynoid — an affictitious person that behaves like and resembles a living Organik being — reminds them that unlike a Synthetik, their own lifespan is limited. Mass-produced Synthetiks also tap into the fear that biological humans are no longer ‘unique’, or ‘special’, or ‘the crown of creation’.
For one, these people are glossing over the fact that Entropy Prevails, no matter if you were born in a womb, or made in a factory. Presupposing that artificial people ‘can’t die’ is akin to thinking your car/microwave/computer will never break down. Granted, you can state that at least with a computer, if the hard drive’s undamaged, you can remove it and pop it into another tower, thereby extending its ‘lifespan’, and with more sophisticated robot technology. one would be able to do the same with an Android or Gynoid. I realise being able to perform that act alone kicks over a wastebin full of philosophical questions, but I’m doing my best to not visit Tangentburg, as I normally do. But I personally think the fact that someone could have a companion that would never become ill or die shouldn’t be a reminder of one’s mortality; instead, their longevity should be celebrated. You could perhaps view it like having children, or better yet, progeny, that go on to do things long after you’re gone, although I’m more than certain there would be some technosexuals that would prefer their afficititious partners go to the grave with them *cough cough*. The Synthetik creations of humankind would continue advancing our ideas and work when our own bodies have given up on us.

As I see it, eventually humanoid robots that look and act sufficiently like biological humans will be treated very similarly to biological humans. There’ll be some provisions, of course, but as the technology continues to develop, the hope is that humanoid robots will be classed as human, albeit a Synthetik human, as opposed to the good ol’ fashioned Organik humans that you’ve doubtless encountered at one time or another. The exact spelling of the term will undoubtedly change; I hold no illusions in that regard. But intelligent members of future generations that are lucky enough to be able to interact with artificial humans on a day-to-day basis will come to regard them as human, but will still need to differentiate them from flesh-and-blood people for the sake of practicality.

Under normal circumstances, it could reasonably be argued that I have a cynical outlook on society; I don’t refer to myself as a pessimist, but the label’s not completely wide off the mark. The one thing that I’m definitely optimistic about, however, is the inevitable arrival of Synthetik people. ‘Uncanny valley’ or not, their presence will occupy some much-needed spaces in commerce, exploration, arts and sciences, and day-to-day living. Quite honestly, believing in the uncanny valley makes about as much sense as being afraid of one’s own shadow, and I think that the more often that Organiks are exposed to and interact with Synthetiks, then those immature phobias will gradually disappear.


Top, HRP-4C Miim; bottom, Actroid Sara. The future’s looking good

‘If a robot appears in every way to possess consciousness, then in my opinion, we should accept that it does’
— David Levy, author and futurist

Random similar posts, for more timewasting:

Any Synthetiks-related news, Davecat? (Mar 09) on March 13th, 2009

Why would we even leave the apartment? on October 10th, 2009

19 have spoken to “Making a valley out of a ditch”

  1. Laura writes:

    Very well stated. I don’t see what the huge deal is. Honestly, the first time I watched Guys and Dolls, I was a bit shocked. It took watching it a couple times for it to ‘sink in’. I’d say I’m pretty desensitized now, haha. I think the general population would be surprised at how accepting they can be if they give it a honest chance.
    I feel like I’m rambling and not making much sense. I haven’t had nearly enough caffeine today.

  2. YO writes:

    You got a second doll???

  3. Davecat writes:

    Laura –
    Part of the problem is is society’s natural (har har) aversion to progress, especially progress that surpasses what the Organik human body is capable of. People make noises that ‘it’s not natural’, or they drag in the whole tired ‘it’s against God and Nature’ argument. But open-minded types such as yourself will have that initial shock of the new and unfamiliar, then the desensitisation comes in. Then, years down the line, society wonders how it ever got along without it. You know how it is…

    And have more coffee! Maybe not right this minute; it’s late. But make some for tomorrow!
    COFFEE: it’s what’s for breakfast/lunch/dinner/brunch/elevenses

    YO –
    No; Sidore’s the only Doll here. You must’ve missed this post!

  4. Donna writes:

    Been intrigued since your appearance on the Guys and Dolls doc. I just bookmarked your blog. Keep writing!

  5. Molly writes:

    Actroids are so badass. Interesting hypothesis, although I think that for every ten people who are creeped out by them, there’s at least one who recognizes how awesome it is that humans can even DO this.

    Great blog. I’ll be returning.

    -Molly

  6. Davecat writes:

    Donna —
    Thanks very much! I’ve been slacking off as of late, but I intend — nay, need, to get back to writing and posting more. Well, that, and taking more photos of Shi-chan. And maybe getting her site back up and running. Hrm.
    But yeah! Thank you for the encouragement! 🙂

    Molly —
    That’s a really valid point that I myself tend to overlook — the simple fact that Organik humans have the capability to even create a reasonable simulation of themselves is pretty feckin’ incredible. The lovely HRP-4C, or all those gorgeous Actroids, or even ASIMO, or Darpa’s Big Dog, for that matter… robots really are fascinating. And when you combine a robot with a human appearance and behaviours, that’s even more astonishing. It’s almost mind-bogglingly impossible to consider how many man-hours and work go into each one. That’s something, as a species, to be proud of.

    Glad to hear you’ll be back. ‘Shouting etc etc’ will be here, so bring an armful of snacks and drinks! 🙂

  7. Ariel writes:

    This is off-topic, I’m so sorry. I’ve been reading your blog and I find it fascinating. I’m an adult female in my 20s but I still enjoy collecting dolls and stuffed animals and giving them personae. I think Shi-chan is very pretty and I’d love to play dress up with her!

    I’d like to ask a question if that’s okay..

    Do you play the Sims? If not, in so many ways it’s something you would love! For example, there are tons of download-able Sims with BJD skins, and Sims made to look like dolls of all kinds. Sims are fully customizable, and you get to control everything about their virtual lives – they are basically “AI” electronic dolls. In the Sims 2, Sims can build robots that will do everything from clean their home, cook their dinner, and have sex with them! In my game I’ve downloaded a customized Steampunk skin to replace the Maxis robots (called Servos). I do have a Sim that is in a relationship with a female Servo that he built. When I saw you on TV the other day this was the first thing I thought: if this guy doesn’t already play the Sims, he should, because that is right up his alley!

  8. Davecat writes:

    Ariel —
    NO QUESTIONS *grabs .mp3 recorder from your hand, eats it*

    Ha, the Sims! I had a copy of the first Sims game that came out way back in 1765 or whenever that was. After a few months of owning it, I kinda had to draw a very final line under it, however. My friend Steph has the newest one, and periodically when I’m round at the Playhouse, I’ll spot her playing it, and see all the fab things you can do with and buy for your Sims now that didn’t exist back in 1765, and I think ‘maybe I should relive the fun, and get a copy of the recent Sims…’
    Then I get home, check my overflowing Gmail inbox, and begin weeping like a soiled infant.

    Man, Sims that resemble Dolls and robots, though?? If they’d had that back then, I might still be playing it now! Meaning, I literally wouldn’t have stopped from the time I installed the game to now. Biologically speaking, I’d be dead. So maybe it’s for the best. 🙂

    Thanks for commenting, and I hope you’ll stick around for further nonsensical commentery! And I’ll definitely pass your comment along to the Missus; she eats that sort of thing up. 😉

  9. sweetkisses84 writes:

    Just saw you on TV again (“My Strange Addiction”). If I wasn’t married, I would totally date you – and consider a trinogamous relationship with you and Sidore. I’m not trying to be creepy, just letting you know that there are women out there who are into this stuff too! I think these dolls are sexy as hell and find them a turn-on. Have you had any other women approach you about this since you’ve made these media appearances?

  10. cyberPilate writes:

    Thank you for reminding me how awesome Synthetiks are and how there’s always another side to science.

  11. Davecat writes:

    sweetkisses84 —
    Well. *runs palm along hair* 🙂
    Although I actually know a few female iDollators, it’s always refreshing to hear other women agree that Dolls are gorgeous as well! Rampant non-stop sexiness aside, they are beautiful works of art; even moreso when you view them in person. Seeing and squeezing is believing! 😉

    And yes, I’ve actually had a few lasses approach me, both on Inter Net and in real life, which always blows my mind. It’s like they say: once a man wears a wedding ring, the ladies come a-runnin’. *dusts nails on lapel*

    You should think about saving up for a silicone lass that you and your husband can share! I could tell you that having a Doll in your life is a decision you won’t regret, but you knew that. 🙂

    cyberPilate —
    You are more than welcome! Science should ultimately be about the expansion of human development and experience. Not everything has to be a Large Hardon Collider*! Science can be represented by something as comparatively simple as a lifelike artificial human, but in their own localised way, that artificial human is just as affecting as a Large Hardon Collider**. Plus, there’s much less potential for the known universe to be accidentally shrunk down to the size of a garden pea!

    *I know what I wrote
    **still not a typo

  12. SafeTinspector writes:

    The “uncanny valley”, other than the cultural fear-of-other that plagues all of humanity anyway, might be explainable by an instinctive desire to avoid the sick.
    Evolution probably favored those who avoided people and animals that were acting “odd”, since the ill may be infectious or act in unpredictable and dangerous ways.
    Also our ability to read body language and facial expressions, while anything but precise and easily fooled, brings comfort in primate interactions; this is one reason humans don’t generally enjoy the company of people who are wearing masks or hiding from view.

    So either coming up with a regularized set of recognizable vocabularies of movement for artificials might help in the short term. Either that or just increased exposure in order to get people used to it. There will be those that use it as an excuse to reject, but that’s a human constant.

  13. Davecat writes:

    SafeT
    ‘Primate interactions’… that’s a pretty good assessment of society at large.

    Me, I’m all about the increased exposure. If we gradually integrate robots and Synthetik humans more and more into society, people will get used to it over time. They’ll have to, frankly. It’s always unfathomable to me how humans living in the twenty-first century can be so fantastically resistant to positive change, particularly a change that could make a vast amount of individuals happy.
    Yeah, I know, I know; ‘primate interactions’.

  14. PBShelley writes:

    Great metaphor, btw! Good ol’ U.V.; the theory that never dies. When the time comes that life-sized Dolls are passe to the general public it’ll be only because they’ve accepted them and not because that fictional valley has been filled in. Evolution; it can’t be helped!

    This also is a theory, apparently.

    When Elena and Elisabeth visited and wanted to take an excursion with Lily, I was a bit nervous about our reception in the out-of-doors. To my surprise (and relief) ninety-nine percent was quite favorable, bordering on delight even, while the one percent was basically a deacon who didn’t wish for us to shoot in his church despite his office’s okay.

    Here’s the thing: THEY’RE JUST DOLLS. Big ones, but still. You know what’s weird? All those fearful types who say that dolls “are scary” and that “they freak me out.” I mean, really? I’m sorry; I can relate to a lot of things but being frightened of an inanimate object is just worthless. And whether they are dumb and dead as bricks or instilled with spirit (ala Shintoism, I think) they’re still not going to be jumping up and searching out the nearest butcher knife!

    Now clowns… they’re another story *shudders*

    ~PBS (Lily is hiding ‘cos she’s scared of clowns)

  15. Davecat writes:

    There’s a lass I speak with on Twitter periodically: she has both a fear of clowns, and a fear of Daleks. What if, I suggested, she were to see a Dalek, which would then open up, and twenty gibbering, full-sized clowns would emerge from its metal casing?
    She didn’t speak to me for several days. Let that be a lesson! 🙂

    It is physically impossible for me to agree with you more with your ‘THEY’RE JUST DOLLS’ statement. See, this is what baffles me: people who think they’re ‘creepy’ or are going to kill them clearly have some imagination, as they’re giving life to inanimate objects, but why are the personalities always needlessly malevolent? That’s what I don’t understand.
    Really, people who are afraid of inanimate objects, particularly ones that are realistically sculpted into the semblance of Organik humans, should be ashamed that they’re thinking on such an immature and knee-jerk level. It’s not even ‘thinking’, it’s just ‘reacting’, which is something that Mankind really should have evolved past by now. You honestly have to wonder if those same people are frightened of full-length mirrors…

  16. PBShelley writes:

    Full-length mirrors = The King Has No Clothes.

    I think that the reasons behind those “evil-doll personality” flicks is twofold: (A) being that the makers need an evildoer that “everyone” will hate (‘cos they can’t relate to a non-human, of course), so proving that the Viewer is in NO WAY LIKE THAT AT ALL, and (B) they lack the imagination to develop a human villain which can be equally despised. Because the consumer *is* a little bit like that, after all.

    I’m not sure that I made my points clearly LOL God, I hope I’m not becoming cynical in my dotage along with senile…

    But, you know, speaking of doll-dolls… Realdolls ARE beautiful *dolls*, aren’t they? (And, no offense to other Doll-Makers who also create such lovely PlayThings; I’ve never seen another type up close and personal!)

  17. Enrique Recuero writes:

    Human beings are robots goddamnit! The fact people don’t know this shoes so much lack of education in biology. We are made from stupid gross parts that linked up through a long term mechanical process (evolution). This process works nicely in computer models btw, so we know its not unique to organiks.

    Davecat knows, I for one, am looking forward to a world with more advanced and more “human” synthetiks. I think that this is a worthwhile goal for our future, I think humans will benefit on every level, and that our robotic bretheren and sistern will probably bring out the best in us over time.

  18. Davecat writes:

    ‘Human beings are robots goddamnit! The fact people don’t know this shoes so much lack of education in biology’.
    Heh, remember this? 🙂
    Organik humans always want to distance themselves from the whole ‘we are biological machines’ thing, because, as always, Organik humans have that ever-present need to feel superior to something. I call it denial, really, but hey. If you tell the emperor he is, in reality, actually bollock naked, his response isn’t going to be a good one, but at least he knows the truth, and hopefully that’ll effect a positive change…

  19. PBShelley writes:

    I see what you did there!

    Well said 🙂

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