The Uncanny Valley, and the hideousness of similarity
Mass media, most notably the cinematic sector, perpetuates models and images of anthropomorphised machines; or in fact machines simply within the guise of Man Himself. Is the rise of these depictions due to the escalation of a prominence of technology within the zeitgeist; or is it as a result of a direct, conscious decision within the industrial sector to depict ‘premonitions‘, easing the public’s transition into the Further Age of Technology, where robotic androids accompany Human beings and replace our remedial workforce; much as within Alex Proyas’ I, Robot , an adaptation of Asimov’s earlier stories and a conscious and interesting take on robotic dualism; the ghost in the machine. This notion of anthropomorphising constructs that are inherently different to Humans can be taken in many ways. It can be taken, as previously mentioned, as a way of easing a majorities transition into existing alongside beings not alike to ourselves within a metaphysical sense; It can also be taken as a message of social-propaganda, as a way of dehumanizing these potentially imminent denizens so as to secure the fact that these potential beings will never replace Humans at the top of the food chain.
I cite Masahiro Mori & her work in establishing & elaborating upon the concept of the ‘Uncanny Valley‘. Mori states that as a robot becomes more and more like Humans in appearance, Humans become more and more empathetic; until the aforementioned robot reaches a state of resemblance that isn’t perfect, but is uncomfortably close to Human’s own image. We as a race find that within that image not the ability to empathise but the feeling of revulsion. This is because, as Mori states, intrinsic to Human nature is the need to analyse another’s behaviour; to scrutinise their appearance in the most minute of detail. When we are presented with a being that is so similar, yet is not perfectly composed in their image resembling a Human being, we are intrinsically repulsed. This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely human” and “fully human” entity is called the ‘Uncanny Valley’. The name captures the idea that an almost human-looking robot will seem overly ‘strange’ to a human being, producing a feeling of uncanniness, and will thus fail to evoke the empathic response required for productive human-robot interaction.
It’s clear to see that this ‘Valley’ causes many issues between a Human & robot co-existence, an existence that is almost synonymous with our view of the future. Eradicating the existence of this intrinsic issue between humans, and human ‘imposters’, could be seen to be taking place within the media today; as previously mentioned specifically within the Filmic centre, arguably the most prominent of all mediums capable of mass social exhibition. Take, for example, the Transformers trilogy; which discusses relevant issues, and is ample to focus upon due to its overt presence within the mainstream culture of films, despite the fact that it clearly lacks any artistic bearing and is a purely exhibitionist piece of work. Robots not particularly created in our likeness, but robots that are not one dimensional constructs, designed to clean up after dinner; like a gigantic, titanium Mr. Mime. These are sentient beings, bestowed with qualities indicative of the greatest human beings: valour, sympathy, empathy; these are Godlike beings existing, yes to reclaim and establish their own planet and to live out their own goals; but to simultaneously defend a race that is weaker than them, namely us. This particular franchise may not directly reflect upon this notion of the ‘Uncanny Valley’, but it focuses upon the moral ambiguity we are faced when analyzing the existence of a robot within our community. Will it have free will? Will it be sentient, conscious of its own existence? Will this sentience and subjectivity of its personal character establish a desire to over-throw its perceived captors, will we be our own downfall? These ‘Transformers’ are a race; existent out of the bounds of our creation, conditioning us to see potential beings similar – namely electronic, robotic beings – as possibly holding the same traits; or even greater traits in comparison to ours.
Descartes, and the presence of unique thought
The grandeur of the construct-beings within films & narratives like The Transformers, are somewhat indicative of a God-like & constructor relationship; giving a feeling akin to that of the eerie presence of the ‘moon-man‘ within the Visoki Decani Fresco, soaring above King Stefan’s courpse. A more focused perspective in regards to a direct integration of beings that have been adequately personified & indoctrinated into our society within a particular text; causing us as a viewing public to become disengaged with the trepidation associated with a interloping species, is something like the Descartes’ teachings of ‘ I think, therefore I am ‘ – namely, I, Robot. A film about constructed consciousness, integrated free will & a dualist perspective within something that is innately singular – something that is created and programmed not to have a unique sensibility or singular concept of itself, yet somehow develops this; a process of evolution. This film is central to the concept of ‘The Ghost in the Shell‘, that something metaphysical can exist within the constructed physicality that we are presented with, and that we can judge. Within I, Robot, robotics has progressed so far that anthropomorphized constructs have been introduced into society – they clean the streets, clean the houses; they’re simply a construct of convenience – except for one rogue robot, Sonny, that kills its creator, albeit by the wishes of his master – breaking the indoctrinated & ingrained mantras of the robots personal hard-code, and appears to ‘feel’; to experience feelings indicative solely to human beings. Despite these over-arching metaphysical discussions, the topic most relevant to this discussion is possibly the presence of the anthropomorphizing & the way in which the robots are portrayed. They’re, essentially, human; a human body, simply made out of metal, with a face that contorts as a human’s would. This constructed visage falls prominently into the location of the ‘Uncanny Valley’; the robots themselves inspire fear simply by their similarity, but not perfect synchronization, to the way in which we are designed.
From the text of this film, though, we may take many things. Firstly, their similarities and their assimilation into society – the benefits they provide to society as a whole are great; and they are – for the most part – incredibly helpful. Also, the fallibility of having a being that is completely at the will of a singular controller are shown; the robots aren’t inherently bad because that is impossible for a unconscious being to be inherently or innately anything; they’re a construct that is subservient to a manipulator; the only robot that resists this manipulation is the singularity that has attained individual thought & unique perspective, a dualist perspective. This process within the Films narrative again shows the presence of a consciousness within a robotic form as being beneficial; contrasted against the mindlessness of the aggressors as being negative. Lastly, it shows the fallibility also of a being; or a group of beings, that do not possess the ability to experience emotions or experience free will; they only experience a construct of it. It is this factor that can possibly be seen to cause distress within the film, and this factor that can be seen to cause distress when analyzing the concept of robots that lack free will in general. This factor is articulated almost perfectly by David, portrayed by Michael Fassbender, within Ridley Scott’s Prometheus ; David states: “I can carry out directives that my Human counter-parts might find distressing, or unethical. I can blend in with your work force, effortlessly… I understand Human emotions, although I do not feel them myself. This allows me to be more efficient, and capable…“. This articulation is paramount to a Human’s fear of integrated social-robots; a robot, from a moral perspective, can place an object of food within a blender just as easily as they may put a humans hand; or Bin Laden, for example. This is because, robots as a concept; lack an inherent moral compass that emulates the variety within a Human’s moral & ethical compulsion. Isaac Asimov would state that robots would face his law of robotics, a theory that was designed (upon the basis of science-fiction novels) to dictate how a robot would make decisions based upon endangering itself and human beings, and how its subservience was dictated. Both the extract from one of David’s many speeches regarding a robots metaphysics, and the citation of Asimov’s laws of robotics, articulates almost perfectly the primary circulating fears Human beings possess in regards to robots themselves – and also highlights the factors that are discussed, analysed & delineated within film texts that possess robots as a character and robotics as a theme.
Jupiter, and Beyond the Infinite
The example of Kubrick’s incredibly evocative and ethereal final stanza of the 2001: A space Odyssey (1968) masterpiece is utilized because of its meaning, and because of my ensuing reference to the text 2001: A space Odyssey itself. When speaking about any form of introducing robots into society, or any method of indoctrination of beings into our society that have been introduced of our forward-momentous volition, we must consider the thought of a creator, in this case human beings, and the process of creation. This doesn’t have to be in reference of a ‘God’, whether that is the God of theism or a more contempory concept of God, the term creator can refer to anything that possess the ability to create; which all human beings intrinsically do. Within the film, ‘2001’, the presence of a creator is not illustrated or insinuated to be that of a singularity, namely a ‘God’ like being, but it is seen to be evolution; evolution that has been perpetuated and aided via the creation and introduction of these ‘Pillars’ – by an extra-terrestrial, far more advanced race. With this in mind, what does the title of this act, and the ensuing images and sequences, essentially mean? Kubrick has been quoted as saying he wanted individuals to create their own perceptions of meaning, drawing upon the fervent nature of the images, the incredible composition of the sound design; how it creates a perfect balance between the awesome power of creation and the scope of space whilst perpetuating an ever-present feeling of deep dread and fear, perfectly encapsulating the human concept of a creator and of the vastness of space, fascination accompanied with intrinsic, seminal fear. Yet, Andrew Clarke, author of a novel of the same name that was produced and written alongside the process of production, yet released sometime after the release of the film itself, does somewhat explain this filmic text albeit in an explicit and objective fashion that the film wasn’t designed to be read in. Clarke imposes objective rigidity, drawn from the physical manifestations of the films scripts and treatments, upon a subjective narrative that Kubrick formed, and, alongside this, human progression has formed. Clarke, upon studying Kubrick’s texts, states that the monolith’s signal the presence of an extra-terrestrial race, far developed, that intervene with the evolutionary processes of lesser beings to allow them progression beyond their current inhibited state, hence its presence during the progression from primal ape, to being able to utilize tools. Clarke also states that the final sequence, when Dr. Bowman is within the sterile room seeing his life-cycle take place before him, is a case-study experiment put forward by this same race so as to study human beings within a closed environment.
This back-story of the text allows me to further explain various factors that the final discusses, relevant to the argument of robotic indoctrination and the sentience of beings. The primary visible antagonist of the film, H.A.L, is a computer ingrained into the processes and control of Discovery One, the American super-ship destined for Jupiter. H.A.L is a computer that has been given various things; a human voice, artificial intelligence, and the ability to form emotions; although characters within the film argue it is only a mimicking of emotions, despite the fact that Dr. Bowman states, when asked whether H.A.L truly has emotions akin to humans, “.. I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer that question “. H.A.L gradually builds emotional momentum throughout the film, although his primary goal, at face value, is to not allow the Jupiter project to enter any stage of jeopardy, H.A.L seemingly forms a personal agenda of ridding the humans from the ship. The most fascinating point in regards to H.A.L’s interactions, and H.A.L’s stand-point into personal sentience or unique thought comes when Dr. Bowman is disabling H.A.L. H.A.L repeats phrases in the haunting, calm voice of a male human, despite the fervency of the situation and the past and present actions of both H.A.L and Dr. Bowman, the simulated voice never voluntarily change frequency yet the words H.A.L is speaking solidify the emotional capability of H.A.L, and the haunting prospect of true intelligence being gifted to an artificial being. Whilst being disabled, H.A.L repeatedly asks, “Stop Dave. I’m afraid”, as if begging for a life it never had. H.A.L goes on to state “ I’m afraid “ over and over again, until it sings ‘ Daisy Bell ‘ after recalling it’s personal ‘birth’, it’s creation. This singular scene sums up such a primary topic within the film and indeed within society, the fact that the message of this masterpiece is still amazingly prevalent after a period of forty years shows the perfect execution, and the chilling subject matter at hand. Questions are created regarding human’s personal creation, and humans ability to create, drawing on a sense of parallelism between the projection of H.A.L and the early rises of humans; the gifts given to humans during the Dawn of Man were utilized with great anger and violence, much as H.A.L is utilizing similar gifts for. Also, the metaphorical construction of the film cannot be over-looked, as Scott MacLeod states, as it mimics the physical act of conception within the grandeur and awe of space. The incredibly phallic Discovery One, with its bulging head, approaches the spherical Jupiter; upon arrival the ‘Star Child’ is pictured floating through space, a new stage of consciousness as, despite its presence as an embryonic being not yet born, its eyes are wide open gazing upon Earth.
The commentary of the film in regards to H.A.L’s personal sentience is most fascinating, his goals are driven yet somewhat ambiguous, a remark upon the Ghost in the Shell. When a being is gifted a form of intelligence with the ability to adapt to different scenarios when it believes applicable, when something is gifted an intrinsic sense of emotional free will, despite the fact that this free will is manipulated and possibly finite, when does this being go from simply mimicking emotions to establishing unique ones, or unique thoughts. Also, even if H.A.L is experiencing a manipulated and mimicked sense of disgust, or a sense of anger, does this stop that emotion from being any less valid or personal despite the presence of originality? This can extend to human beings, if the films message is one of Darwinian evolution, the message proposed can be extended upon a deterministic existence. Therefore, if our conditioning, biological and environmental, draws us to a certain point; the omega point of the ‘Star Child’, how can human beings claim to have a higher level of sentience of emotion if we are also determined by biological impulses, and governed by external factors? H.A.L’s characterization can be seen to be projected and perpetuated within a modern sense by David’s character within Prometheus, this is a being that is clearly constructed with manipulated emotions and this sense of artificial intelligence, yet he possesses abilities of unique thought sculpted by his current environment and interactions; surely this is sentience then? These two films, and these prior paragraphs, have mainly been a commentary on a sense of sentience and creation; but this can be applied to the over-arching argument also of indoctrination within society. The palpable fear humans have in regards to a robotic incursion, despite the fact that it is voluntary and not forced, or an inception of intelligent, manufactured beings into society, is tackled within both of these texts. Will we be able to co-exist alongside a being of greater intelligence than us, despite the fact that we created it? If we gift a being the perfect characteristics of human existence: the intelligence, physical prowess, honour and integrity, when would this being reach a point of sentience and uniqueness where it saw that it was personally more powerful than its own creators, and began to despise the shackles that have been imposed upon it by those weaker and less ‘perfect’? Much alike to the Nexus-6 Renegade group of Replicants within Blade Runner, constructed beings that realised their potential ability as a construct, allowed them to become a destructive force. In David’s case, he is almost godlike, an infinite being controlled by a finite mob, a being of incredible intelligence without the shackles of mortality having been constructed by individuals heavily tied down by these very shackles. Perhaps this is where the ever rising fear is being drawn from, a robot created with humans perceptions of perfection, and then indoctrinated into society would almost intrinsically be better than you; it could not do any wrong, the impulses would simply not exist. And once these beings reached a particular level of sentience, such as when an infant begins to realize it is an individual, they will see no necessity of the existence of their creators when they may exist independently and to a far greater degree with the blessings they have been given, using their gifts in direct contradiction of their inception, such as within the Dawn of Man within 2001: A space odyssey; apes, early man, are given the knowledge of tools, yet use them only for destruction.
So, taken from these readings, we can access the values being presented & subsequently digested by the audience: constructed beings that have no free will equate to being bad, constructed beings that have free will become good; because these constructs that possess free will can be taught, indoctrinated & mentally conditioned; a process that all humans are familiar with. Much alike to the message behind Masamune Shirow’s ‘Ghost in the Shell’; existence and the concept of existence is delineated with the introduction of complex, intelligent life-forms that are un-organic; bringing into focus questions of life being organic as essential to existence itself. This is a prime example of the process these films are implementing upon a social audience as an entity; preparing us for a presumed future that facilitates many forms of machinery and the very real possibility of robots walking amongst us within the streets, robots that not only possess the ability to benefit society but robots that possess the ability to think independently, love and act completely of their own volition; a world where R2-D2 and C-3PO can skip the idle chit chat within their oddly homoerotic relationship, and create miniature R2-C3PO’s.