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Zombies, Robots, Clowns

July 11, 2012

“Why zombies, robots, clowns freak us out” by Elizabeth Landau posted on CNN Health:

What do zombies and androids have in common? They’re almost human, but not quite. That disconnect is creepy, in a way that scientists are searching to understand.

The article’s video profiles cognitive science professor, Ayse Saygin who has a data set of robot movements that she uses to explore the uncanny valley; the uneasy feeling of an almost human-like but not quite human-like appearance.

You may have experienced feeling this while watching animated movies that incorporate humanlike forms. It’s also the reason that you might get freaked out by clowns or by photos of people with extreme plastic surgeries who don’t look quite real anymore. Our brains come to an impasse when we see something that resembles a member of our species but just doesn’t make the cut.

Saygin studies this poorly understood negative feeling for imperfect animations so that we can learn to make better animations; simulations of reality that seem real. I wonder if simulations can become so real feeling that the reality starts to feel uncanny, and potentially drop off into the valley from the other side? Like how mass media photoshopping may lead to distorted body image and depression.

uncanny valley

This also relates to theories that video games and Hollywood use zombies because it makes it easier to suspend disbelief. Even though we know zombies are not real, once we suspend that disbelief it becomes much easier for us to imagine the rest of it as real. The jerky movements of the artificial intelligence of the film character or video game enemy becomes believable as a zombie.

The similarity of clowns to zombies is also important. Historically clowns were spiritual leaders of the community. Also in terms of French theory, the French clown is an existential character, often dealing with a sort of depression in the question of existence and purpose.

One of the comments on the CNN article says that used car salesmen give that uncanny feeling. In which case maybe this is an adaptive mechanism to identify genuine human contact. As robots better simulate these feelings, we are disconnecting from humanity. Of course it relates to advertising, selling things with persuasive force and swindling people.

So let’s examine the advertising supporting this cognitive science health story. First, CNN is owned by the media conglomerate Time Warner. Also Saygin from University of California, references a few major Hollywood movies: Avatar, Wall-E, Polar Express — and the image of Tom Hanks face is used to epitomize a real human that doesn’t make us scared. The work is presented in the context of improving entertainment but the real implications are in embedding that technology into every consumer interaction.

Let’s also look at the literal advertising message – before I saw the video interview of Professor Saygin I was forced to watch an ad for Hewlett Packard. The ad copy was:

Why do you do what you do?
Why do you put in the work?
You do what you do because it matters.
Because it’s important.
Little things.
Big Things.
Little things that add up to big things.
At HP things that matter to you matter to us.
We don’t just believe in the power of technology
We believe in the power of people when technology works for them
To make it work for them.
To do the things that matter.
If you’re going to do something make it matter

The aspirational qualities of this message is to search for purpose, for values, and that technology is helping. The message is let the robots take over. The machines can simulate reality better than we can. And you should do what matters to you. But what is that exactly? And isn’t it this pressure to self-create that is causing so many psychological disorders.

ZombieLaw has mentioned Donna Haraway (and surely HP would endorse her Cyborg Theory); she would rather be a cyborg than an earth goddess.

What will the rights of the zombie be in this cyborg world? Note the related usage of zombie in TechCrunch to refer to undead parts of the Stop Online Piracy Act. Gregory Ferenstein in TechCrunch writes “Zombie SOPA? Congressman Introduces Pieces Of Defeated Bill, With Support From Former Opponent Issa” And recall Cory Doctorow’s 28C3 speech about the regulation of tinkering with devices.

There are real cyborg world terrorist threats, see Bloomberg Businessweek, “Attack of the Zombie Drones” by Drake Bennett, about remote controlled devices and hacking them with false GPS signals:

How easy would it be for someone to hijack a drone and Svengali-like, get it to do what they wanted, instead of its mission?

And even if evil-doers can’t figure out how to hijack a military drone, they could maybe build one from parts at the hobby store as Man to plead guilty in plot to bomb D.C. targets via model planes.

SO we’ll need some kinds of new regulations but we risk turning everyone into parts of a machine, no longer human, experiencing humanity only as simulation, and that simulation owned by corporations, unattainable by our actual bodies; bodies which become mere zombie clowns – like juggalos. As our minds and culture adapt to new simulated worlds, focusing on higher and higher abstractions of purpose, it is the animal body world that becomes uncanny.


From → Academics

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