Slate series on radical enhancement

Slate is sponsoring a discussion on transhumanism.  The players are Kyle Munkittrick (pro) and the tag team of Brad Allenby (against, sort of) and Nicholas Agar (against in all likelihood, although his post is not yet up). And if you are in the DC area, you can hear Brad and Dan Sarewitz, co-authors of the book The Techno-Human Condition (highly recommended!!) debate the issues with Emily Yoffe of Slate as the moderator.

Pop culture’s uncanny valley

Given Japan’s traditional lead in robotics, it is perhaps no surprise that the all-female Japanese pop idol group AKB 48 has just added a robot to its cast of 61 members. There is a great article over at Atlantic Wire about the synthetic band adding a synthetic member to their group.

It turns out that this kind of advance is both mesmerizing and at the same time evokes the proverbial yuk factor. As robots appear more and more human, we tend to accept them up to a certain point, and then it becomes downright creepy. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese robotics scientist, described the phenomenon as Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) which translates into ‘uncanny valley’, shown in the figure above.

The phenomenon of the uncanny valley is not just something that humans appreciate: it appears to exist in sub-human primates as well. What is not clear is whether given repeated exposure to such golems, humans will become desensitized and the uncanny valley will disappear. After all, when heart transplants were first described, there was both universal astonishment and outrage (a good summary can be found in this pdf); today, in jurisdictions where such procedures are common, heart transplants barely merit mention.

The uncanny valley has also been suggested to be a challenge to acceptance of the types of radical enhancement that transhumanists envision – James Cascio has written a thoughtful piece on the topic, dubbing it the second uncanny valley.

Of course, as with all things, there is nothing new under the (rising) sun. Predating AKB48’s addition of a robot to pop culture, Jonathan Brigg penned a song with the title Bukimi No Tani (the Uncanny Valley). Listen and enjoy.

Image from Steckenfinger and Ghazanfar