Uncanny Valley

“As the appearance of a robot is made more human, some observer’s emotional response to the robot becomes increasingly positive and empathetic until it reaches a point beyond which the response quickly becomes strong revulsion. However, as the robot’s appearance continues to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once again and approaches human-to-human empathy levels”

    Roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “UnCanny Valley” to describe the creepiness of robots.  We humans tend to like robots more the more they resemble humans— until a certain point. Specifically, at 81% human-resemblance, our liking plummets into strong rejection.

We’ve all experienced this precipitous drop into the Uncanny Valley. Baby dolls are cute; silicone babies are creepy. Cartoons are cute; bad drawings are… bad.  Halle Berry is sexy; Wax Halle Berry is only kind of sexy. Those imposters can STAY in their creepy valley where they belong!

Until about 99%. Then, we start to like the darn thing again. The 99-percenters can trick us into forgetting they’re robots, and we ex-machina all over them.  


The Uncanny Valley demonstrates many things, two of which I’d like to highlight here:

  1. Reality is non-linear

  2. The more conscious effort we put into manufacturing ourselves, the creepier we get.

To the second point:

    The easiest example is “the natural look.”  Walk into your local Walgreens. You will be greeted by row after row of beautify products promising the “Beach Tousle”, the “Sun-kissed glow”, the “Shades of Nude.”  Each of these products strongly recommends another product, or ten. At eighty six cents to the dollar, this can get costly. This face wash dries her skin, so she needs this lotion, and that lotion makes her face shiny, so she needs this power, but this powder makes her face smell like a baby’s ass, so she needs this perfume to attract mates with her pheromones and shit.  Nowadays, a woman pays a tit and a labe to appear as if she never paid nor tried nor gave any of her shits to make the world wonder: “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s Maybelline.”

    Another example:  Greenwich Lawns. Drive through the lush hills of the Gold Coast on a Sunday morning and you will see the source of those perfectly manicured hedges: immigrant labor. (Specifically, Latino men, as the women are busy caring for the children.) You can appreciate the aesthetic balance of the estate, but it does not viscerally arrest you in the way a waterfall or tiger lily or rainbow would.  The succulent, majestic, meaty beauty vanished and left behind a creepy, wonderless shell. 1

1. Please feel free to skip this footnote, especially if you have a tendency toward the literal.

Here are a list of other things in the Uncanny Valley:

    Botox, Psychopaths, Amendments 1-27, margarine, the seventies, the FDA food pyramid, “Reconstruction”, aerosol, the Cold War, The Tower of Babel, the Twin Paradox, Newtonian Physics. Freud

Let’s play a game called, “Yeah, that’s creepy.”  Look at the room around you. There is a collection of things and furniture that ended up there some way or another.  Now imagine that someone had consciously put each and every thing there to seduce you into comfort. Now what was an organic environment becomes a test tube.  Your peaceful solitude mutated into a simulation under the watch of an unknown eye. Now, you say, “yeah, that’s creepy.”

We can isolate some variables of beauty: symmetry, color theory, balance. But we’re poetically unconscious of that which draws us to it: the juicy connective tissue between natural beauty’s bare bones that, like God, transcends our conscious but not our perception. God communicates to us through angels, through prophets, through miracles. God presses its hand against one side of the warm walls of reality’s womb, and we press ours against the other. But we never touch directly, and that is beautiful in and of itself. So too do we experience beauty.. Beauty is not a thing to pick up and pick apart. Beauty happens.  It happens beyond, within, and through us but never by us.

But, damn, do we try.

With epic regularity, humans strut up to history and declare it conquered. Time and time again history engulfs us back into its beautiful, beastly, belly. Remarkable how we never fail to believe that this time— that we— will be different.

I’ve never been one to believe a thing impossible, except for this: we will never escape ourselves. We try, and in so doing become less human.  We build ourselves up on top of fleeting pleasures and flimsy smiles, and we fall. We fall. We fall.

Into the Uncanny Valley.

No sign of life.

Emma Speer