Uncanny Valley

By SESHA KAMMULA

The popular bitmoji app started as a cartoon. The pictures were cartoon representations of the individual makers and could be edited to have silly characteristics. However, the more recent updates have started to feel less like cartoons. The app is a fun way to express oneself without sending photos, but over time the pictures have gotten more realistic. It’s creeping, slowly but surely, up the curve toward the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is an aspect of the hypothesized correlation between an object’s appearance and human affinity for that object. As objects grow to resemble humans more and more, human emotional response to those objects is generally more positive. However, at a certain point, the positive emotion changes to one of uncanny (a feeling of strange and unsettling familiarity.)  It’s been used to describe dolls that blink, certain prosthetics, Ted Cruz, and many other things teetering on the edge of realistic.

Theories proposed to explain this phenomenon include an evolutionary aversion to pathogens, an ingrained fear of dead bodies, and a learned mental definition of “human.” What all these theories have in common is a violation of an expectation. They involve a promise of familiarity. So why do we keep getting stuck here?

Objects made in human likeness are as old as art itself. The human form inspires people to this day, and rightly so. However, the detail and precision with which faces are replicated now far surpasses classic art. Commitment to realism has leaped forward, and the goal of perfectly replicating the human form is looming. But the valley is steep. It seems as though the question is “when” rather than “if” we will come out on the other side, but one has to wonder how long we will stay at the bottom.

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