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The Uncanny Valley

January 1, 2012

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?

7 Comments
  1. January 4, 2012 2:58 pm

    If I were human, I sure wouldn’t turn her in. “Android” is probably a protected ethnic group by now.

    What worries me more is this microscopic robot that they want to inject in your body:

    http://robotgossip.blogspot.com/2005/08/microscopic-robot-for-surgery.html

    I mean, suppose one of those wants to join my biofilm; What should I do?

  2. Sam Lubell permalink
    January 10, 2012 2:28 pm

    Loved the book (and yes, I did figure out the alien roommate early and wondered why no one else caught on). But then, I had some roommates who were pretty weird too…

    • January 10, 2012 4:11 pm

      Good to hear from you, Sam. And watch out for those roommates!

  3. January 11, 2012 11:04 am

    Hmmm. I’m new to science fiction and I just believed what every one in the novel said — that this Dwyer roommate was a reconstituted human being! Now I know..

    • January 11, 2012 3:21 pm

      Thanks, Christopher–I’m glad someone admits it. And congratulations. You’d make an outstanding candidate for Dean of Students. :)

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