The uncanny valley and racism

This week’s edition of On the Media features a segment discussing the concept of the “the uncanny valley.” The idea is that if you have a representation of a human that is 50, 60 or even 95 percent correct, people will have no problem recognizing that image as non-human and accepting it.

However, as you get closer to 100 percent, the brain crosses a threshold where the image suddenly shifts from being a representation to something akin to a human with something wrong with it.  This is most commonly manifested in modern computer generated graphics. That’s why you can watch something like Avatar, Shreck or Up with no problem. The alien or cartoonish characters are clearly not human. However, when you look at Polar Express, the characters look downright creepy with their dead eyes.  This is a movie that falls into the valley.

Most people think about the uncanny valley in terms of technology and how to avoid it. However, it says much more about the human brain and how we perceive the visual inputs that we get.  We see something and process it and if it doesn’t meet our expectations we recoil from it. Is this what drives racism? Do we see someone with a slightly different skin tone or nose shape or height and think that they are “broken”? Obviously we can tell that these people are alive and yet it seems that the way we respond is not so very different from the way we recoil in fear or disgust from the artificial characters in video games or movies.

Is it possible that the solution to problem of the uncanny valley is not and should not be with changing technology but rather with understanding ourselves and making changes within?

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