Filling in the Uncanny Valley

Technology is the science of removing intermediaries. We may think we’ve come a long way with email, but we’ve actually got a long, tech-wise way to go. The point of a letter is to transfer information. Banging away on a keyboard, editing, sending and waiting for someone to read and respond is still, hilariously, an inefficient process. According to controversial futurist Ray Kurzweil, someday you will “know” or “feel” something and send that information, instantly, to a friend.

Heavy stuff. I have trouble typing that notion seriously. The biology of it seems a little preposterous. One of the biggest arguments against Kurzweil is that he applies an engineer’s lens to the nature of Being Human and I tend to agree. Much of his argument is based on the idea that our rates of discovery about Us will proceed at the same rate as we’ve innovated computers. To me, that’s a non sequitur. At this point we can only stimulate the brain and watch where it lights up on an MRI. We understand basic responsibilities for regions of the brain, but I’m not sure if the scientific community is any closer to understanding consciousness than Plato. Moore’s Law doesn’t apply. We may have a vague idea of where, but we don’t have an inkling of how to plug in the USB cable.

But the constructs of consciousness are only one end of the bridge. The other is the ever-changing computer. So, let’s pretend for a second that Kurzweil is right about the bio-informatics side and we could link our brains into a network…

(If you don’t get what’s going on in Second Life, each of the characters in that video is a person sitting at their computer “being themselves” in a virtual world—essentially The Matrix.)

Yeah…freaky. Talk about plugging in.

Now, part of me wonders what the real difference between that and clicking around Facebook is. In either scenario you’re entering a virtual social scene, devoid of the ancient mechanisms of human interaction. However Facebook does use “real images” (which feels like a contradictory concept) to display humans. Not avatars. We need that real, authentic, nitty-gritty, maybe-sweaty, human interaction. We’re social creatures. That weird-as-f**k virtual world does not contain the inherent social qualities of life. It’s a dreamscape disturbingly close to a hellscape. Because no one looks real enough, it violates the deepest depths of the Uncanny Valley.

Basically this graph indicates that we have a real problem when pictures and objects get “too close” to looking like humans. “Low familiarity” means “revulsion”. The revulsion is less with still:

And more so with moving:

Will that Uncanny Valley hold back the virtual worlds? Will we never get to a place where we simulate our “second life” because the characters involved just…aren’t…human?

I don’t see why technology couldn’t evolve to a place where robots and graphics exhibit the same locomotion as a person, even in the hands. Yet, I do wonder about faces—most especially, the eyes. Replicating the window of the soul seems, qualitatively, a bit like understanding and integrating with consciousness.

But do we need to?

There are already studies coming out about how differently people portray themselves in their Facebook profile versus First Life; their profile information and pictures are heavily-vetted to suit the image they want of themselves. Sometimes it’s simply (and reasonably) to avert embarrassment, but oftentimes it’s to create a different persona. Perhaps Facebook is just the ease-in route to virtual reality where sci-fi junkies have just jumped into Second Life feet first.

Is that e-veil that first step in desensitization? It doesn’t require looking much farther than a kid obsessed with texting during dinner to realize how easy it is to reprogram the brain away from those around them. Eye contact may just become irrelevant; brains stop searching and caring about it. Only screen contact matters.

So maybe Kurzweil doesn’t need to be right about understanding the mind. Maybe we don’t need to replicate the window to the soul or figure out the ancient mechanisms of human consciousness. Maybe we’re just building new ones.


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Caleb’s recent column on Bleacher Report which is a little more light-hearted than this one.

Follow Caleb at

Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at


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