How do writers anticipate future technology? There is no clear cut rule, and like many visionaries we are wrong more often than we are right (hover boards by 2015). However, there are two guiding questions that tend to form the boundaries of creative space in which to develop fictional societies and depict imagined worlds — Where will technology go? But more importantly, where will technology refuse to go?
One asymptotic border that technology still seems intent on avoiding is the squirmy place known as the “uncanny valley.” The term “uncanny” refers to the sensation felt when something encountered is both familiar and unfamiliar, such as a child who resembles a relative they’ve never met. The term is typically applied to humanoid representations of robots or other nonhuman entities. The “valley” portion of the term refers to an untouchable zone, where the degree of revulsion and discomfort felt at the sight of a near-human creature spikes before returning to an acceptable level of differentiation. You can read more about it here.
As a way to offset the emotions generated by traversing the valley, it becomes necessary to allow some piece to remain blemished, un-perfected. When enough differentiation develops so as to be able to distinguish between real and artificial, the uncanny feelings dissipate.
This week I wanted to take a look at two of my favorite films that attempt to traverse the space of the uncanny valley through a combination of visual technology and crafty storytelling — Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film AI: Artificial Intelligence and Christopher Columbus’s 1999 film Bicentennial Man.
Both films tell the stories of androids created to fulfill human needs, who then aspire to become human, but these stories are told in very different ways. AI tells the story of David, a child-like robot, or “Mecha” designed as a replacement for childless couples who have been prohibited from conceiving children of their own due to overpopulation. He becomes obsessed with the story of Pinocchio and sets off to find the Blue Fairy who he believes holds the power to turn him into a real boy.
In each of these films, the elusive human factor that reminds us just how far from human our nonhuman imitators are is the absence of love. But our heroes have opposite trajectories — David is created as a surrogate child surrounded by love but soon journeys into loss and loneliness. Andrew is created not as a person but as a piece of property, but over the course of 200 years finds his way toward being valued as a loved and cherished friend.
This displacement of love — either as a thing lost to be regained or as a strange emotion newly experienced — serves to reinforce the boundaries of this uncanny valley. Emotion and emotional reciprocation are denied to our characters through their natural station in the order of existence. They may want to be human, but don’t worry, they aren’t.
In AI, love is directly (albeit somewhat subconsciously) tied to the creation of life, both genuine and inauthentic. The creation of life means sex, and sex, as we learn, is something that Mecha can imitate but never participate in genuinely.
The other form of love is the form for which David was built — to soothe the heart of a grieving parent mourning the loss of a child. David is brought in to replace the ailing son of Henry and Monica, who as a last resort have cryogenically frozen their son until a cure can be found for whatever mysterious illness plagues him. As such, David’s appearance is perfect. Unlike his Mecha costars whose robotic appearances were accomplished with make up and sound effects, Haley Joel Osment’s appearance remains unchanged for his portrayal of David.
David is a child born not of love, or even sex, but of greed and machinery. He is identical to the child his creator modeled him after (his own late son) and if not for the few minute personality quirks conveyed beautifully by Haley Joel Osment, we would not be able to detect his artificiality. His companion is Joe, known by his professional name “Gigolo Joe” — a streetwise “lover model” Mecha whose only function in existence is to provide lustful satisfaction to paying customers. Even the force used to generate life is an imitation for these Mecha, who Joe excitedly explains as beings who “are the guiltless pleasures of the lonely human being” who can’t get pregnant and who’ll never have to be taken home to meet the parents. Where there is already no life in David’s world, there is no place for genuine love.
Bicentennial Man follows a similar path. Andrew is an android created for the simple purposes of cleaning and house maintenance for wealthy families in a futuristic upper class community. But he is unique — he has personality. He seeks to learn and grow and develop and does so with the aid of his owners. He eventually finds need to ask for his freedom and sets out on his own. In contrast to David whose appearance is never altered to appear less real, Andrew is a fully fledged metal object.
Actor Robin Williams wore a series of metal suits to create the look of a robot. Over the course of the film Andrew slowly acquires the necessary parts to become human — artificial lungs, organs, a heart and skin. As he woefully explains to a committee called to rule on his classification as human or android, he is still equipped with a “positronic brain.” As the chairman explains, “society can tolerate an immortal robot, but we will never tolerate an immortal human.”
In the end of course, this all changes. The last words Andrew hears are those of the same committee many years later declaring his status as human and validating his marriage to fellow human, affirming a successful end to his quest for love.
The plight of the unreal to become real through a series of laws and regulations bears an uncanny resemblance (no pun intended) to the path from chattel to citizen laid out for hundreds of America’s slaves. David and Andrew begin their existences as modern slaves, given no control over their bodies, lives or existences until a moment of freedom presents itself. But even still they both face harsh roads ahead on the path to recognition and acknowledgement. David narrowly escapes being lynched in front of an eager audience of “flesh supremacists” and Andrew’s attempts to be declared human and marry his human wife go ignored for several decades.
It’s no surprise that two stories in the context of such stringent regulation on what is real and what is fake would relate so closely to the nature of love and sex. Segregation laws were put in place to placate fears of racial mingling, but most directly, racial mixing and miscegenation.
Fears of diluting the stock that makes humanity human may also lie at the root cause of the uncanny valley, or perhaps we fear something deeper — that we have played God in one of the worst ways, to create a subclass of entities nearly indistinguishable from ourselves whom we subject to subhuman status and the horrors that come with the title. What responsibilities do we have to these creations? What do they owe to us? This is hopefully still an area in the realm of fiction, where real technology will never go and will leave us only to speculate the effects.