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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

The "Uncanny Valley"

November 22nd, 2005 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Every now and then, ESPN.Com comes through with an interesting, edifying, and entertaining article that justifies my 1000 visits per day.

With the release today of Madden 06 (student note: an X-Box 360 and Madden 06 will do just fine as compensation for the countless hours I've spent reading your term papers. Thank you.), ESPN.com writer Patrick Hruby described the "uncanny valley" that the game evokes.

Put simply, the theory states that as a nonhuman entity becomes more like us in its appearance and motion, our reactions become increasingly positive and empathetic -- until it becomes "almost human," at which point our feelings give way to revulsion.

Why do we get creeped out? Easy. So long as an entity is sufficiently nonhuman -- think C-3P0, or the crude players in earlier Madden games -- we tend to notice its human qualities. An effeminate English accent stands out; a blurry touchdown dance delights us. But when that same entity gets close to seeming human, the opposite effect takes place. Every flaw becomes huge, every nonhuman quality impossible to ignore. The old Madden players were charmingly unsophisticated. The newest digital Vick brings to mind one of George Romero's zombies, only without the blood and bad teeth.

I'm far too tired to think of any, but there must be profound implications on artificial intelligence (like, perhaps, cutting off funding?). Stuck in my head are scenes from That Hideous Strength. Chasing Hruby's link to Wikipedia's article on the "uncanny valley" didn't help me get them out:

David Hanson, a roboticist who developed a realistic robotic copy of his girlfriend's head, said the idea of the Uncanny Valley was "really pseudoscientific, but people treat it like it is science."

Sara Kiesler, a human-robot interaction researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, questioned Uncanny Valley's scientific status, noting that "we have evidence that it’s true, and evidence that it’s not."

1) A robotic copy of your girlfriend's head? Charming. And romantic.
2) Notice who's doubting? That's right--the AI folk. No wonder. Profound implications, I tell you.

At least I have a new addition to the list of conundrums: How do we close the mind/body gap? Can we leap Lessing's ditch? Will we transverse the "uncanny valley?"

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.

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