Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Latest Round of Technocentric Ignorance

It had to happen sooner or later. According to Associated Press Technology Writer Matt Slagle, David Hanson and his company, Hanson Robotics, have a project that, for all intents and purposes, aims to turn the Pinocchio fairy tale into a reality. In the laboratory Pinocchio's name is actually Zeno, which also happens to be the name of Hanson's eighteen-month-old son; so Hanson is not exactly the same as the childless Geppetto. I am less interested in just how far Hanson can go with this project than I am with his position on what is called the "uncanny valley" debate over how realistic robots should appear. Here is how Slagle describes the situation:

The theory posits that humans have a positive psychological reaction to robots that look somewhat like humans, but that robots made to look very realistic end up seeming grotesque instead of comforting.

"Nobody complains that Bernini's sculptures are too darn real, right? Or that Norman Rockwell's paintings are too creepy," Hanson said. "Well, robots can seem real and be loved too. We're trying to make a new art medium out of robotics."

In my book this is yet another example of an engineering whiz-kid who should have been paying more attention to his core requirements in the humanities. Since it only takes one example to refute a "nobody" assertion, let me offer up Sam Shepard as a counterexample. Before he became a familiar face in Hollywood movies, Shepard used to write some really creepy plays. One of the creepiest, Buried Child, even won a Pulitzer Prize. All the action takes place in the living room of an old farmhouse and is basically concerned with the family living there. The one major character who is not a member of the family is Shelly, whom we do not see until Act Two. When she enters the living room, one of the first things she says is, "It's like a Norman Rockwell cover or something;" and she's right! Shepard understood that creepiness always resides beneath, but very close to, the surface of things; and Buried Child is very much an exercise in peeling back the surface of a typical Norman Rockwell canvas to reveal the creepy. He thus gave expression to all of us who, for various reasons of cultural background, never identified with those Saturday Evening Post covers and comforted us with the prospect that it was just as well that we did not identify with them! Having just written about how little we seem to understand about the concept of "humanity," I find it ironic that I should encounter such an explicit example in the current practice of robotics!

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