October 30, 2013

Sam Visits the Uncanny Valley

Sam, in younger, more innocent days

It’s hard to escape the uncanny valley these days, even if you’re a dog. Our puppy Sam learned that lesson during a visit to the vet last week.

A robotics professor coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe the discomfort we feel when we perceive that something inanimate is trying too hard to convince us it’s alive. As Wikipedia puts it, “when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.”

Sam’s experience at the vet made me think that definition may lean a bit too heavily on the “human.”

Sam is a six-month-old yellow lab, and she’s a sweetheart. I can literally count on one hand the occasions when she’s barked or growled at anyone or anything.  None of those occasions happened at the vet, which is why we were so surprised last week when Sam let out a couple of barks and started growling as soon as we took our seats in the waiting room. 

What set her off, it turned out, was a decorative wooden dog in a corner of the waiting room. It was a blocky, slightly comic version of a terrier, about two feet high, with a combative expression on its face and a colorful scarf around its neck. Sam was deeply suspicious. The fur on her back raised and her lip curled. Instinctively she seemed to know that something wasn’t right here – that this “creature” was trying to pull a fast one. Sam had entered the uncanny valley.

I know how she felt. We humans are having our own trouble figuring out what’s real and what isn’t these days. Those doubts are, in turn, symptoms of more general anxieties about where we stand in relation to machines.

We live in an age when technology is ascendant, and we’re thrilled by all the things our devices are doing for us. Our enthusiasms, though, are accompanied by an undercurrent of fear. Technology gives us power, but we know that power cuts both ways. Subconsciously we’re aware it can turn against us.

This is the essence of a theory called the Fourth Discontinuity, which derives from a comment of Sigmund Freud’s. Through most of our history, he said, human beings were confident the universe revolved around them. In the past 450 years, however, that cherished self-image has suffered three major blows. The first of these was the Copernican Revolution, when we learned that Earth is a satellite of the Sun, rather than the other way around. The second was Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which showed that man was descended from apes. The third, Freud modestly contended, was his theory of psychoanalysis, which demonstrated that our thoughts and our behaviors are not entirely in our control, but instead are influenced by drives and conflicts hidden in the deepest regions of our personalities.


The fourth discontinuity is a recent addition to the list that takes into account how quickly machine intelligence has advanced in the past fifty years. Just as the second discontinuity acknowledged that we can no longer claim to be an order of nature distinct from and superior to animals, the fourth discontinuity holds that we can no longer claim to be an order of nature that is distinct from and superior to machines. The result is an ongoing identity crisis.

Our feelings toward animals today have a lot to do with our misgivings about technology. In his book, The Metaphysics of Apes: Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary, Raymond Corbey notes that throughout history there have been periods when cultures have emphasized the differences between humans and animals and periods when they’ve emphasized their similarities. The publication of Darwin’s theory provoked a swing of the pendulum toward discontinuity; people wanted to prove how absurd it was to suggest our ancestors lived in trees. Today the pendulum has swung decidedly in the opposite direction. Not a day goes by, it seems, when there isn’t a new book, article or study talking about how much humans share in common with elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees and dogs. Especially dogs.

Animals serve as antidotes to the Fourth Discontinuity. If our interactions with technology make us feel, on some level, inferior, it makes sense that we take comfort in our kinship with animals. Sam’s behavior at the vet can be counted as another sign of our affinity. Together we stand on one side of the uncanny valley; robots and wooden terriers are on the other. Dogs are indeed man’s best friend, now more than ever.


(An earlier post on creepy technologies addresses related issues.)

©Doug Hill, 2013

October 24, 2013

Mailer and McLuhan: Fire and Ice

Knowing my admiration for Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan, my friend Sanjay Agnihotri recently sent me a link to this remarkable 1968 TV debate between them. 

Mailer, not surprisingly, dominates. He comes off as grounded and engaged; McLuhan seems abstract and aloof. Mailer is fire to McLuhan’s ice. Given McLuhan’s famous characterization of television as a “cool” medium, you might think he’d have the advantage. From my perspective, he doesn't. Mailer comes out well ahead on points.
Here’s a snippet that captures the flavor of the conversation:

McLuhan: “Look at the new environment as metaphors of our own bodies and nervous system.”

Mailer: “I’m perfectly prepared to, but what I see there is a dreadful nervous system on a hideous body.”

Mailer says several times that, while he admires the "genius" of McLuhan’s analyses, he's disappointed by their detachment from moral conviction. McLuhan takes “great, kindly pleasure” in describing the growing influence of technology, Mailer says, “whereas I’m appalled by it.”  

I understand Mailer's frustration with McLuhan's tendency to remain, as Mailer puts it, "above the fray," but I don't believe his work is quite as devoid of moral judgment as Mailer suggests. For example, I quote in my book a passage in Understanding Media in which McLuhan elaborates on his oft-stated theme that the new electronic environment is an extension of our nervous systems. Such an extension, he says, would be fatal were we not able to numb ourselves to reduce the impact of over-exposure. "Thus the age of anxiety and of electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy." 

The statement is matter-of-fact, but hardly value-free. 

It's also true that later in his career McLuhan became less sanguine than he'd initially been about the social and psychological impacts of the technological forces he so prophetically recognized. According to his biographer, Philip Marchand, McLuhan talked more often about the emergence of a “discarnate man,” a creature Marchand describes as
the electronic man, the human being used to talking to other humans hundreds of miles away on the telephone, used to having people invade his living room and his nervous system via the television set. Discarnate man had absorbed the fact that he could be present, minus his body, in many different places simultaneously, through electronics.... His self was no longer his physical body so much as it was an image of a pattern of information, inhabiting a world of other images and other patterns of information.
The product of such a condition, McLuhan said, was an individual who inhabits “a world between fantasy and dream” and who spends his life in a “typically hypnotic state.”

It's safe to say these are conclusions with which Mailer would have heartily agreed.

October 18, 2013

Digital Dualism, circa 1846

"We who are born into the world's artificial system can never adequately know how little in our present state and circumstances is natural, and how much is merely the interpolation of the perverted mind and heart of man. Art has become a second and stronger nature." 

               Nathaniel Hawthorne

From Mosses from an Old Manse, quoted by David E. Nye, America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings