The Beauty of the Uncanny Valley

The Frankenstein Complex, a term coined by famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, and refers to the irrational fear of robots and android-like machines. Although the concept was created for use in his stories, it is similar (but far less complex) than Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Uncanny. The Uncanny was first defined by psychologist Ernst Jentsch in 1906 as an “...intellectual uncertainty between the animate and inanimate that tends to provoke a certain kind of anxiety.” Freud disagreed with this definition (as he often does) and suggested his own: “something which ought to have remained hidden, but has come to light." For Freud, it was less about an intellectual uncertainty, and more about the horror of that which is hidden. 

 The Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny Valley

Throughout the study of modern psychology, and the study of robots and automata, other scholars and researchers have come up with many other definitions of The Uncanny. Kara Reilly, a performance scholar who writes about performative objects, defines the uncanny as, “something familiar or homelike that becomes horrifying through its sudden unfamiliarity.” I personally like this definition because it recognizes the aspect of unfamiliarity in the small discrepancies in object that appear nearly human, but fail to achieve perfect mimesis. 

More pertinent to the science fictional, The Uncanny Valley (1970), is an entirely different concept, identified by Masahiro Mori, referring to a gap in emotional responses to objects created to resemble humans that fall short of perfect mimicry. In other words: as the appearance of robot becomes more human, the emotional response to the robot become increasingly empathetic. Then, and a certain point, when the robot becomes close to perfect mimicry, but has not achieved it, this empathetic reaction disappears and becomes aversion.

As the robot’s appearance continues to become less distinguishable from humans, the emotional response becomes positive once again. But can the Uncanny Valley be pushed further than this? Is there a second side to the valley? As we move into the transhumanist era, will a whole new "mirrored" side of the uncanny valley emerge? Thierry Chaminade and Ayse Saygin of University College London have proposed a second uncanny valley that takes into account what happens when human beings, who are not attempting any kind of mimicry, then start becoming less human, due to the post-human movement. Chaminade and Saygin suggest a new chart for reference: 

 The Second Uncanny Valley

The Second Uncanny Valley

What are the implications for science fiction literature within this second Uncanny Valley? As a science fiction writer myself, I can imagine a number of new and interesting transhumanist narratives having to do with the slow and steady evolution of human beings into a kind of creature we no longer recognize. I do not mean that humans are overtaken by mechanisms (Ahhh! The robots have destroyed out brains and taken over!) but instead, a steady, natural kind of evolution and blending with technology, in which human beings consent to be biologically altered in order to overcome the inevitability of death. I for one am looking forward to more literature and sci-fi media that grapples with these ideas. 

As always, I am looking forward to your comments and questions. 

Nerdfully,
Dr. Bella