The Empire Never Ended


“There is a certain warning Freud imparted to humankind about our behaviour that is Delphic in its ambiguity. Fatalists love this warning beacuse it proves that humans are little more than what Pavlov supposed. Optimists usually don’t read a lot of psychoanalytic theory so they may not have the opportunity to discover the political hope that Freud’s warning confirms. To paraphrase Freud it asserts that: ‘We reproduce our past not as memory, but as action. We act it out. Acting it out is, for some of us, our most vivid way of remembering.'”

Neuromancer: the uncanny as decor. Jeanne Randolph, in The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture. Bruce Grenville ed, Vancouver Art Gallery. Published by arsenal pulp press, 2001. P220.


Glimpses of The Uncanny Valley

“Japanese roboticist Doctor Masahiro Mori is not exactly a household name—but, for the speculative fiction community at least, he could prove to be an important one. The reason why can be summed up in a simple, strangely elegant phrase that translates into English as “the uncanny valley”.

“Though originally intended to provide an insight into human psychological reaction to robotic design, the concept expressed by this phrase is equally applicable to interactions with nearly any nonhuman entity. Stated simply, the idea is that if one were to plot emotional response against similarity to human appearance and movement, the curve is not a sure, steady upward trend. Instead, there is a peak shortly before one reaches a completely human “look” . . . but then a deep chasm plunges below neutrality into a strongly negative response before rebounding to a second peak where resemblance to humanity is complete.

“This chasm—the uncanny valley of Doctor Mori’s thesis—represents the point at which a person observing the creature or object in question sees something that is nearly human, but just enough off-kilter to seem eerie or disquieting. The first peak, moreover, is where that same individual would see something that is human enough to arouse some empathy, yet at the same time is clearly enough not human to avoid the sense of wrongness. The slope leading up to this first peak is a province of relative emotional detachment—affection, perhaps, but rarely more than that.


“The figure [in the] diagrams this curve of emotional response, plotting it (from top to bottom) first against how closely an entity’s motion resembles human movement, then against physical resemblance to human appearance, and last against a synthesis of the two. It is significant to note, judging from the relative depth of the curves, that Dr. Mori apparently considers motion more important than simple appearance, though he stresses that both are affected at least as much by subtle nuances as by more striking factors.

“The conclusion drawn by the good doctor is that designers of robots or prosthetics should not strive overly hard to duplicate human appearance, lest some seemingly minor flaw drop the hapless android or cyborg into the uncanny valley—a fate to be dreaded by all concerned. He maintains instead that a prosthesis or a robot should be visibly artificial, but smart and stylish in appearance, placing it somewhere near the top of the first peak. This ethos, incidentally, can be seen clearly in a great many science fiction and fantasy manga and animé stories.

“The same factors that inspired Doctor Mori to research and describe the uncanny valley and the rest of the curve to which it belongs are of immediate concern to any creator of fantasy or science fiction. Aside from the readily apparent potential for careful tailoring of a character’s or species’ “look and feel” to evoke a specific reaction from the audience, there are some perhaps surprising possibilities and consequences…”

Glimpses – The Uncanny Valley

All is full of love

“Modern concepts of the uncanny can be traced back to two major essays: Wilhelm Jentsch’s, ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny’ (1906), and Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ (1919). 1919 also saw the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Rutherford’s discovery of the proton, the first episode of the constantly re-animated ‘Itchy and Scratchy’(according to the internal history of ‘The Simpsons’) and the Theremin invented by its namesake, making it a good year all round. The ‘uncanny’ derives from the German unheimlich, loosely seen as meaning ‘un homely’. There are many readings and interpretations of the term, but many centre upon the concept of the animation of apparently inanimate objects, and can be applied to technologies including the animated image, the dislocated and disembodied voice when using a mobile phone, and the ‘uncanny valley’ of cybernetic automata.

“However, a base characteristic of the uncanny as argued by both Freud and Jentsch is that it occurs when animate and inanimate objects become confused, when objects behave in a way which imitate life, and thus blur the cultural, psychological and material boundaries between life and death, leading to what Jentsch called ‘Intellectual Uncertainty’- that things appear not to be what they are, and as such our reasoning may need re-structuring to make sense of the phenomenon.

“The simplest and most universal example of this is the reanimation of the dead; ghosts, zombies, poltergeist activity and communication from the ‘other side’ all form part of the psychology of the relationship that the living have towards the dead, and towards their own death. A corpse creates feelings of the uncanny as it is life-like (for it was once alive), and reminds the viewer of his or her own approaching death, the animate imagining the inanimate, and the possibility that the inanimate could be animated again.”

Technology and The Uncanny

You look smashing in that dress

“In 1816, the German Romantic fabulist ETA Hoffmann published his unsettling short story “The Sandman”, in which a moody university student falls in love with and passionately woos a pretty but uncommonly reserved young woman, only to lose his mind and leap to his death when he discovers that she is in fact a cunningly built automaton.

“A century later, when Sigmund Freud wrote his essay on “The Uncanny”, tracing the various ways that corpses, ghosts, coincidences, and other things ambiguously suspended between one order of being and another can provoke unease and alarm, it was no accident that out of all the literary examples he could have chosen from, Freud picked Hoffmann’s “Sandman” for his Exhibit A. It was as true then as it is now: nothing says “creepiness defined” like the prospect of human intimacy with robots.

“This is apparently news to David Levy. Or if it isn’t, don’t look for the evidence in his oddly – very oddly – fascinating new book, Love and Sex With Robots. Levy’s thesis (and it’s precisely that: at the age of 61, after decades as a successful, self-taught expert on computer chess, he submitted this book by way of a dissertation to the University of Maastricht’s computer science department and came away with a PhD) is as straightforward as it is brazen.

“By the year 2050, Levy claims, social attitudes and robotic technologies will have evolved to the point that “humans will fall in love with robots, humans will marry robots, and humans will have sex with robots, all as (what will be regarded as) ‘normal’ extensions of our feelings of love and sexual desire for other humans”.

Want to do the Turing test in bed?