4 December 2008

Beyond the Uncanny Valley

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:27 pm

Here’s a helpful diagram prepared by Seyfried, reprinted here with his permission:


Seyfried’s elegantly symmetrical diagram builds on and extends roboticist Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley” diagram, illustrating the contention that, as an inhuman thing comes more and more to resemble an actual human, the subjective response abruptly shifts from empathy to revulsion. Dredging the bottom of the revulsion valley are the uncanny undead: corpses, zombies, the actors in Southland Tales. Seyfried’s diagram is identical to Mori’s until, moving from left to right, from subhuman to the “healthy person” apex. This is where Mori’s graph stops; Seyfried extends it to the right, beyond human to the posthuman. In Seyfried’s rendering another unhappy valley of revulsion plunges down when humans encounter technologically or genetically enhanced transhumans, but this revulsion reverses itself in posthumanity, where the uncanny similarity to the ordinary healthy human fades into more radical difference. Is this plausible?

In a related study, a team of Swedish neuroscientists demonstrated that human subjects can be made to experience virtual bodies as their own. Did they feel comfortable in their new virtual skins, or were they repulsed? Says the article:

“It feels like I’m the mannequin,” one volunteer reported. “Wow, this is cool,” said another.



  1. Beautiful.

    It would be interesting to connect these perceptual limits to the fantasy case of the “Operated Jew”: http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/05/25/the-operated-jew-and-the-machine/

    It has been my thought that it is the fearful proximity of the mechanism to the human which triggers the sensitivity to signs of unpredictability: so perfect is the simulation (not only of the robot, but of the Jew, Black, Woman, etc.), we cannot trace the hidden possibilities of action (and motive). The “agent” holds within it, the “spy”.

    (I might say, as I mentioned the cutification of objects eariler, this is different I think than the uncanny valley effect, though it might work to ease the uncanny to some degree. As the website showed, one can make inanimate, non-human objects, such as hammers, “cute” by modifying their ratios.)


    Comment by kvond — 4 December 2008 @ 6:54 pm

  2. “The “agent” holds within it, the “spy”.”

    Yes, Kvond, I tend to interpret claims of inhuman agency through a hermeneutic of suspicion, wherein some all-too-human agents are trying to snooker me into believing that the puppet, or even the whole puppet show, isn’t operated by a puppeteer, that the artificial intelligence isn’t just human intelligence in disguise. This I suppose is the opposite of your Operated Jew story, which as an antisemitic text portrays the subhuman as trying to pass as human. What’s disturbing from the Aryan viewpoint is that this subhuman Jew is able to muster a whole lot of clever agency to accomplish a ruse so successfult that it fools the fully human German Gentiles. The implication is that the subhuman Jew is smarter than the human Gentile, which I think has always been a challenge to all master-race fascists: “are we the supermen, or are they?” And certainly the computers really are smarter than the humans who built them in many ways. The truly subhuman, preconscious agency of Spinoza and Deleuze also possesses this uncanny confusion, wherein one looks for the Master Designer or Prime Mover behind the rhizomatic flux.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 December 2008 @ 10:09 am

  3. I’m wondering how Seyfried constructed this diagram: presumably some automated graphing program. Aslo, is it just me, or does this diagram look like some sort of posthuman hermaphroditic pudenda?


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 December 2008 @ 10:11 am

  4. Ktismatics,

    I can read the hermenuetics of suspicion in the way that you suggest, and see a coherence, but I suspect that the alarmbells that go off when the anomaly of behavior/signification shows itself, is much more immediate than a suspicion of a puppeteer, or a puppet-show (though a paranoid reconstruction could organize itself as such). It is the very real, and very human, and very rational need to be able to predict (and therefore control through aniticipation and influence), the behaviors of others. When someone, or something is seamlessly predictable, lowering our thresholds of alarm, the anomalous is striking. In cases of race and culture, the suspicions are that there are host of influences and investments which lay hidden and well-disguised, which will mechanistically produce their effects at just the right/wrong moment. This fundamental fear of the eruptive I think lays behind the problem of similitude.

    In the case or robots, I suspect that the closeness of appearance evokes all kinds of human responses in the viewer, to which the robot cannot react, subtly. Exposing immediately an anomalous character.

    I certainly agree that beyond the dynamics of the inordinate and unpredictable, the kinds of undermining projections involving intelligence and superiority certainly do play a part in the explanation. Ever is the fantasy that robots and computers are or will be superior to us, a fantasy primarily enabled by the imagination that they “enjoy” a relationship to the world (computational, mechanized) which we cannot have.

    p.s. I saw the anatomy as well.


    Comment by kvond — 5 December 2008 @ 10:59 am

  5. I would like to add that although I really do enjoy the expansion of the graph, I am unsure of how to read the additional section, as if it were a kind of continuum. Perhaps someone could give me some thoughts on the difference between the “transhuman”, which we read as uncanny and not very familiar (holding a position in our consciousness somehow like the zombie), and the “nearly post-human”, which we are to read as much more familiar, but also some how much less human, than the transhuman. Is the “nearly post-human” only the “transhuman” that has been assimilated by culture over time? And why would the “radically posthuman” not be capable of being perceived in a familiarity peak equal to the “healthy person”?

    Perhaps I am reading the graph wrong, and these terms and graph points have very specific meanings I am unfamiliar with. I would love to have it explained to me.

    I also wonder about the nature of the “healthy person” peak. When one encounters an EXTREMELY heathy person (depending on the image: a body builder, a movie star, a spiritual guru, etc.), there is something quite uncanny (unfamiliar) about them. Perhaps there is a sudden valley in the very middle of the graph as well.


    Comment by kvond — 5 December 2008 @ 12:48 pm

  6. “Perhaps there is a sudden valley in the very middle of the graph as well.”

    Sort of an uncanny urethral channel?


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 December 2008 @ 1:24 pm

  7. John,
    At what point on the graph would your average person percieve someone in a really severely mentally ill state ? Hydroencephally etc?



    Comment by Ivan — 6 December 2008 @ 4:43 pm

  8. I think of the transhuman as being borglike, man-machine hybrids that just seem creepy. Genetically modified humans probably push further into the posthuman realm, though the early results might be more like Kvond’s uncannily perfect human specimens before the designers lose the conventional constraints and start really getting creative. But there’s probably something affectively different about the posthuman that makes the whole familiarity graph start to contort in unpredictable ways. The graph assumes the ordinary human as its affective standard, but that standard might dissolve in the posthuman.

    The profoundly retarded, the catatonic, the mad — do they induce empathy or disgust in the ordinary humans? I’d say, sadly, it’s more the latter, wouldn’t you Ivan? That’s one reason for institutionalizing them: it separates them from the normals who are disturbed by their presence. I don’t want to overgeneralize here, or to attribute to the rest of humanity the kinds of feelings I personally experience. Greater familiarity with the subnormal might enhance the empathic response and lose some of the disgust. My mother was quadriplegic, which I regarded as her normal state, but at the same time I was aware that she was odd and for a time in my early adolescence I felt embarrassed about her. She said that others often reacted toward her with a kind of disdain or disregard, as if wishing she weren’t there. Racism cultivates the disgust rather than the empathic response to difference, categorizing this difference as subhuman.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 December 2008 @ 12:23 am

  9. It always seemed the latter. I meant this of the unfamiliar person. It looked in the uncanny valley just short of zombie.



    Comment by Ivan — 7 December 2008 @ 12:59 am

  10. Ivan and Kvond, have you seen this? Doctors’ endorsement of the incremental movement toward transhumanity. I think I’d try these mind-enhancing drugs if (a) they cost no more than ibuprofen and (b) I could be assured of no side effects. Caffeine I think has no appreciable effect on me any more — either that, or I’ve become permanently brain-enhanced and don’t even notice it any more.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 December 2008 @ 9:19 pm

  11. I think these doctors should go and have another look at that movie Forbidden Planet. (Maybe Blade Runner too)


    Comment by Ivan — 8 December 2008 @ 1:27 am

  12. Ktismatics,

    How wonderful. Actually Erik Parens, noted in the article,

    “Erik Parens, a senior research scholar at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank in Garrison, N.Y., said the commentary makes a convincing case that “we ought to be opening this up for public scrutiny and public conversation.”

    is a recent professor of mine on the issue of the transhuman. He seemed not as affirmative of the trend as much as I was. I believe that because the category of “normal” is crteria dependent variable, one really must see our chemical use as part of the assemblages that make us up. They raise and lower thresholds, for better or worse, altering our capacities as a culture. We already ARE transhuman (coffee already enables workschedules and buying patterns that might not exist without it). Our bio-chemistry is in combination with both cultural modified behaviours and direct chemical intervention.


    Comment by kvond — 8 December 2008 @ 5:12 pm

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