Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Uncanny Valley

Aimi Eguchi, non-existent Japanese pop sensation. Image Source: Washington Post via Youtube.

In robotics and CGI circles, there is a concept known as the 'Uncanny Valley,' which describes the alienation people feel when confronted with a simulated human.  It's a psychological response that is a last divide between the real and the unreal.  Bridging that divide is key for enterprising film-makers and marketers who want to create believable imaginary worlds or CGI characters.  Slowly, they are devising ways to do that.  Wiki defines the term and explains its origins:
The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of robotics and 3D computer animation, which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The "valley" in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot's human likeness.

The term was coined by the robotics professor Masahiro Mori as Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) in 1970, and has been linked to Ernst Jentsch's concept of "the uncanny" identified in a 1906 essay, "On the Psychology of the Uncanny." Jentsch's conception was elaborated by Sigmund Freud in a 1919 essay entitled "The Uncanny" ("Das Unheimliche").
The Uncanny Valley was recently almost crossed with the creation of supercute Japanese pop star Aimi Eguchi.  However, fans treated her with suspicion because she resembled her fellow pop band members too closely, and her fictitious back story seemed implausible.  On 24 June, Eguchi was revealed to be a computer simulation. From the Telegraph:
The perfectly-formed fake singer was made up of the very best of pop pedigree, with computer scientists plucking specific facial features from six of the most genetically blessed of AKB 48's real life female members.

The cut-and-paste popstar was bestowed with eyes taken from Atsuko Maeda and a button nose from Tomomi Itano while her long, lush hair hails from Yuko Oshima and her sensual mouth belongs to Mariko Shinoda.

Even her eyebrows were borrowed from pretty band member Mayu Watanbe while the mix of features were cleverly united within a face outline belonging to Minami Takahashi.
But manufacturing your own AKB 48 idol, is not as easy as it looks. Skilled computer scientists used detailed imaging to highlight the points on the real-life girls' faces before their best features were captured and digitally implanted onto Aimi's virtual face.

This is not the first time Japanese CGI specialists have done this. The Washington Post:
Eguchi is another example of J-pop’s trend toward virtual or fictional pop stars.

The wildly popular hologram pop star, Hatsune Miku, plays sold-out concerts across the country to screaming fans waving glowsticks.

The fictional all female band Ho-kago Tea Time — featured in the anime series “K-On!” — released an album in 2009, which debuted at No. 1 on the weekly charts.

Aimi Eguchi is the first virtual member of AKB48, which is a theater-based group that has its own theater in the Akihabara district in Tokyo. The letters AKB in the group’s name are derived from the district name. AKB48 is said to currently hold the Guinness World Record for being the pop group with the greatest number of members, which fluctuates but is usually around 48.
The Wiki article on this topic summarizes theores as to why people feel positive toward synthetic humans, then revulsion in the Uncanny Valley, then positive again on the other side of it.

Psychological reactions in the Valley likely involve fear of death (so-called 'mortality salience'), an inversion of the mating instinct, pathogen avoidance, and violations of human and religious norms.  These violations that speak of frightening power: Christopher Knowles has argued that zombies and robots represent the older symbol of the Golem.  The Golem - an animate being formed of lifeless matter - may run all the way back to the story of Adam, formed of clay by God in Genesis

Perhaps the second-most famous story of the Golem comes from Prague, where Rabbi Loew supposedly created an artificial servant fashioned of clay in the 16th century.  To animate the creature, Loew wrote the Hebrew word for 'truth' (emet - אֱמֶת) on its forehead.  When it became a menace, he erased one letter, transforming the word into 'dead' (met - מת).  The 1920 Expressionistic film directed by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen, The Golem: How He Came into the World, is below.  This film  was part of a trilogy, starting with a very early 1915 horror film, The Golem, and followed by The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917).

The Golem (1920), Part 1. Video Source: Youtube.

The Golem (1920), Part 2. Video Source: Youtube.

The Golem (1920), Part 3. Video Source: Youtube.

The Golem (1920), Part 4. Video Source: Youtube.

The Golem (1920), Part 5. Video Source: Youtube.

The Golem (1920), Part 6. Video Source: Youtube.

The Golem (1920), Part 7. Video Source: Youtube.

The change in how the Golem entity is perceived, from good to evil - is mirrored in timeless Promethean stories like The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1797), Frankenstein (1818), R.U.R. (1921) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).  All are cautionary tales about playing with the fire of creation.  All hinge on our changing psychological response to inhuman humans.  The robot, or more likely, the CGI entity, represents  a point at which humans, as tool-using animals, confront tools which are made to mirror humans, and do.

Directly below are three examples where there can be no mistake that these robots are simply machines. Since they are robotic enough, they actually do not spark too much uneasiness.  The discomfort associated with the Uncanny Valley only arises through a real human's proximity with, and human interaction with, the machine.

Childbot. Image Source: Posthuman Blues.
Image Source: Dark Roasted Blend via Ectoplasmosis.
Image Source: Corbis via Fcuk News.

A non-working model edges toward a more human appearance (below), and enters the Valley because she is sexualized.

Fembot beige. Image Source: Posthuman Blues.

Because she was discovered, Aimi Eguchi was plainly still in the Valley.  If she had seamlessly imitated a real girl, she would have crossed the Valley and escaped detection.  She's a classic example of the cognitive dissonance inspired by a Millennial mash-up, in this case of the facial features of her fellow bandmates. What CGI specialists deemed 'most believable' and 'most accessible' were the elements of AKB48's current band members' facial features that were 'most beautiful.' Ironically, they came up with a female who was too anatomically perfect. And she therefore came across as fake and doll-like.

Computers and the Internet have enabled mash-ups, wherein designers pick and choose bits of history, narratives, images, or any other parts of the cultural canon in order to cobble together a new reality, with no regard for the context and cultural origins of the sources.  But doing that, with total disregard for the natural flow of human life, of history, of temporal change, leaves us subliminally uneasy.  As a result, mash-ups reflect and exacerbate the breakdown in values and Millennial aporia. Mash-ups shatter time and peace of mind.

These questions pale next to the deeper moral questions surrounding deeper levels of simulation.  Consider the creation of entities that we are pushing to learn and think like us.  In 2009, researchers at the University of Reading used a a biological brain (of a rat) to develop a robot capable of learning (Hat tip: Seed Magazine via Posthuman Blues).  At bigthink, Dominic Basulto recently commented on the moral pitfalls of the Uncanny Valley in relation to the case of Aimi Eguchi:
If it sometimes feels like it’s impossible to keep up with the torrent of information, data and digital content that’s being created every day online, you’re not alone. Within the next few years, it’s highly conceivable that many of us will have enhanced versions of ourselves that are able to complete all the routine online tasks – such as updating our social networking profiles or applying to jobs – that are already within the limits of artificial intelligence. In fact, the entire Transhumanism movement is based around that very idea – that soon, a hybrid of human and machine intelligence will make it possible to transcend our current cognitive limits. Yet, to get from Point A (the present) to Point B (the future), we will need to walk through the shadows of the Uncanny Valley – and that journey could indeed be perilous, fraught with many ethical and moral dilemmas.

We’re now almost at a point where, at least online, digital representations of humans are able to fool millions of people. ... At some point, it will it no longer be possible to distinguish between machines and humans on the Internet.

This will be the other side of the Uncanny Valley, where humans will enhance themselves – whether through biology or robotics or artificial intelligence – to a point where they begin to possess “uncanny” abilities – such as superior cognition or extraordinary physical abilities. As futurists such as Jamais Cascio point out, "So long as these enhancements remain within a perceived norm of human behavior, a negative reaction is unlikely, but once individuals supplant normal human variety, we can expect an outcry of revulsion." However, once such technological enhancements accelerate away from conventional human norms, "transhuman" individuals would begin to be perceived as entirely separate entities (Supermen?) altogether.

It’s impossible to reach The Singularity without first successfully traversing the Uncanny Valley. What will be our reaction, however, when advances in biology and artificial intelligence make it possible for some members of our society to gain an advantage over others, by virtue of their uncanny cognitive and physical abilities? When we look at them, we will no longer recognize ourselves – and it is then that the ethical, moral and religious questions will intensify. (Transhumanism, remember, is one of the world's most dangerous ideas.) Will we see our enhanced selves as abominations of nature, or as merely the next logical step in the evolution of the human race?
Image Source: Tamar Levine/Rob Sheridan via Posthuman Blues.

Deeper in the Uncanny Valley, below, is an image that becomes horrifying, because the image of a robot's innards are juxtaposed with a very realistic human facade.  It reminds us of death, gore, violence, dismemberment, something familiar, yet alien.

Coming through on the other side of the Valley are the following new CGI creations, posted at 43 Pixels.  These CGI people are not all completely convincing.  Notice how easy it is to make the dead walk again with CGI's version of immortality (third image).  But the last two images would almost certainly pass muster (especially when designers add calculated imperfections - the moles on the girl's nose in the last picture are ingenious). Real trouble will only start there, on the other side of the Uncanny Valley.

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  1. I wanted to thank you for your kind words on my blog. It really meant a lot to me.

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