The Uncanny Valley
To celebrate the New Year, I’ve posted a collection of some of the years’ reviews of The Highest Frontier. May give a nudge if it’s still on your to-read list.
Some reviewers mention the “surprise” that isn’t–the alien roommate. It isn’t supposed to be a surprise. The reader should wonder, “Why doesn’t the college get this?” There’s a phenomenon in academia that sometimes a “student” gets by for a long while before they turn out not to be what they seem, like the cases at Stanford and Harvard. More often–and unsettling–a student has a serious hidden problem, like the pyromaniac admitted at a college full of ancient wooden dorms. And every semester, a few students develop “issues” that everyone knew about, except the long-suffering administrator to whom falls the task of getting us through the year.
Now let’s suppose an admitted student actually were something other than a human being. If they passed admissions and were handed keys to your dorm, what do you do? Suppose you know something’s wrong; you sense that uncanny valley that separates human from non-quite. What do you say? “Dean Smith, I think my roommate’s a space alien?”
In a year when unemployment drags on, Iran builds a nuke, and creationists aim for the White House, I suppose the prospect of an alien roommate seems far from our top concern. But the uncanny valley looms in robotics. Yes, those so-called job creators only accelerate their efforts to create our replacements. Robots human enough to comfort patients in a hospital. Robots that “can run, walk on uneven slopes and surfaces, turn smoothly, climb stairs, and reach for and grasp objects.” Robots made to lie, compose music, and invent languages for each other.
If your roommate were Actroid-F, would you report her to the dean?