Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sci Fi Uncanny Valley

There's a phenomenon in computer animation and robotics that "when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers." (Wikipedia.) Basically, people freak out if human imitations are in a small window where they're very human-like, but not quite human enough .  It's called the uncanny valley, and you can read a very dry, boring explanation of it on wikipedia.  Here's a more interesting explanation of it. 

Creepy CGI kid

I thought of the uncanny valley recently when I tried to read (for the second time) Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. Published in 1950, this is a famous book in the sci fi cannon.  It's a series of stories about robots and how they interact with the people who created them.  But I had a similar reaction to it that I had when I read some science fiction stories from Arthur C. Clarke in February.  (See The Future Back Then.)

Like the Clarke stories, there are attitudes in the book that just grate on me. I can't stand any of these characters.

The husband is the Man of the House, and what he says is FINAL.  But because he loves his wife, he relents and gives her what she wants.  (As opposed to a mature negotiation between two equal adults.)  Men patronize women, and they both patronize children.  Parents openly LIE to their children and try to deceive them in an effort to spare their feelings.  In one story, the parents try to take a robot pet away from their daughter.  The dad takes her to the movies and promises her robot will be there when she gets home.  It's not. Of course, she is devastated.  How did they expect her to react to this betrayal?  I would think that the only thing this teaches children is never to trust people.  (Maybe this is why the 60's counter-culture had such disdain for authority?)      

One main character in the book is a woman, the head of U.S. Robotics, which I'm sure Asimov thought was very progressive, but she's the only female scientist in any of the stories.  All the other women in the stories (there aren't many) are stupid and play the stereotype of the anti-technology ditz.  
How women were portrayed in 50's sci fi.

To be fair, the men are pretty stupid, too. 

The scientists are annoying and overreact to everything.  Instead of calmly investigating problems, they fret and ridicule and bloviate and insult.  There's a lot of "Now see here!"s and "You idiot!!s."  They're as sarcastic and impatient as 8th graders.  They make stupid assumptions, jump to conclusions, and do stupid things based on those assumptions.

Perhaps they just didn't know how to write dialogue.

In one case a scientist has to explain to another scientist about the atmosphere on Mercury and how it affects the human body.  While they are on Mercury.  Don't you think one of the first humans to land on Mercury would already know that kind of thing?   In another case two scientists encounter a serious problem with a unruly robot, and instead of explaining the problem to the guys who replace them, laugh and let them figure it out on their own.  What professional from NASA would ever do something like that?  I kept asking myself, "Were all scientists from 1950 this stupid?" 


Which brings me back to the uncanny valley.  I think the problem is that these people are too much like us, but not enough.  If they were from 1850 I could just look at it as a period piece-- that's how people thought back then.  But like the uncanny valley, people from 1950's dealing with robots in the U.S. are too similar to me, but not quite enough.   I feel like they should know better.  

I do like the premise of a I, Robot, and the concept of the Three Laws of Robotics (designed to protect us from the robots we create.)  The book illustrates the issues and complications that arise with creating artificial intelligence.  That really is a fascinating topic.  But the delivery is often annoying and not credible.  I did a lot of eye rolling as I read this book, and actually only got about half the way through it before I gave up.  

Aside from antiquated language ("Now see here!") and amusingly inaccurate predictions about how the future would look, here are some other ways that the stories date themselves:

These people create robots that can reason, think, react, lie, and even read minds.  They travel to all the planets of the solar system and set up working mines.  And yet, they still use paper and pencil to draw out their plans and schemata.  

One character (with an Irish last name) is referred to as "the redhead" several times.  I don't know what color hair his colleague has, but presumably it's not red.    

In one story (which takes place in 2029) a man exclaims that they can't just destroy some dangerous robots, because each robot costs Thirty THOUSAND dollars!  These days $30K won't even buy you the propeller on a drone aircraft. This made me laugh out loud and reminded me of the scene in Austin Powers where the evil villain, who's been frozen since the 60's, ransoms the whole world for One Million dollars!!

Interestingly, just a few days later I heard a news report on the radio about a new kind of robot used in manufacturing. The reporter said it's "cheap, less that $30 thousand." Funny he used that exact number.

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