Westworld And The Uncanny Valley

For those of us watching Westworld, you have to admit that seeing Old Bill—the second host the park ever built—was slightly unsettling. He’s such a weird hybrid of machine and human that seeing him makes us feel uneasy. His movements and facial gestures are odd and we experience a perceptual mismatch of sorts—is he human or is he a machine?! This feeling of unease is called the uncanny valley: the notion that at some point, the “not quite” or “almost human” features of robots make us feel uncomfortable or even revolted. We become disturbed by their “dead eyes” or the fact that they look human, but are moving mechanically and we enter the “the uncanny valley.”

The Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori first described the uncanny valley in 1970 and it has become a highly influential idea that has shaped films, video games, and the design of robots. In this story, Ajay talks to futurist Trevor Haldenby and cognitive psychologist Tyler Burleigh about the connections between the uncanny valley and Westworld.

Here are some interesting ideas that came out of this story.

In many ways, Westworld is an exploration of consciousness. The synthetic androids, or hosts, have passed the Turing Test and are indistinguishable from humans. In Westworld, the uncanny valley has been crossed. And as the hosts trudge towards consciousness—towards become increasingly self-aware, they strive to become more than what they are (which is artificial). On the other hand, many of the humans—or guests, seek to indulge in the darkest parts of the human experience (while playing characters).  The hosts are obsessed with finding truth, finding a place for themselves and finding an honest experience while the guests are pretending they are in a world they can do whatever they want, as depraved as it might be, because, isn’t Westworld just a game?

So, in Westworld, the uncanny valley has been flipped. The robots have descended into the uncanny valley as they become increasingly repulsed by the “inhuman” qualities of the guests—while the guests have crossed the uncanny valley and are able to be intimate or violent with robots without a second’s thought.  In Westworld, the robots help us to understand what it means to be truly human by holding up a mirror to humanity and reflecting back what they see.

As social psychologist Sherry Turkle, who investigates our relationship with technology has pointed out, our conversations about the future shouldn’t obsess over what robots will be like. Instead, she says, we should think what kind of people we will be, what kind of people we are becoming, every day. And I would add, maybe then, our AI will reflect back an evolved, more enlightened consciousness?

According to Haldenby, we are only decades away from realistic-looking robots that are cyborgs, that have organic systems infused with a machine intelligence and bicameral minds that can be controlled by us but can think and generate ideas on their own. He says it’s entirely possible that our grandchildren’s friends may be growing up with robots like this. So, if cyborg-type robots are around the corner, we need to be aware of the ethics and morality we want our artificial cousins (and us) to have.