See that guy in the picture above? He's not a real person, he's a character from 'Tom Clancy's The Division', one of the most buzzed-about games of 2016. He - it, rather – doesn't exist on any meaningful level. It's a string of ones and zeroes; a walking, talking, mindless bundle of data, pixels and animation routines. Yet it makes for a pretty convincing person, doesn't it, with its three-day beard, its glistening wounds and its tired, pleading eyes? You can almost hear its wheezing breath on your neck.
While gamers love their hyper-real graphics, there's something eery about their not-quite-realness that can bring on an avalanche of fear and revulsion. The term for this phenomenon – first identified by robotics professor Masahiro Mori back in 1970 – is 'uncanny valley'. With technology not quite at the point where it's possible to replicate humans 100 percent convincingly, we're living through a time of peak uncanny valley.
They are everywhere, these dead-eyed monstrosities, with their slightly 'off' movements and their squirm-inducing smiles. They're at the cinema: see the eerily-human puppets of acclaimed new movie 'Anomalisa.' And they're in the news: see Nadine, the unearthly robot receptionist who made headlines earlier this year.
If we have to live amongst these undead horrors for the foreseeable future, neuroscientist Dr Nicola Ray of Manchester Metropolitan University is here to help us understand exactly why these things give us the shuddering heebie-jeebies.
Almost-real CGI people
Particularly skin-crawling example: 'The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn'
Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson's 2011 Tintin movie strolled straight into uncanny valley by placing its CGI characters at the midway point between being photo-realistic and being faithful to the original books. The result was a bizarrely deformed cast of wrong-people, and the hard-to-shake sensation that you were in the throes of a traumatically creepy hallucination. Arrgh.
Why is it so creepy?
“The human brain is primed to detect faces; we can even see one in the moon,” says Dr Ray. “Face detection is so important to us that we've evolved a network of brain regions that are specialised in face processing. Upon detecting a face-like pattern, these brain regions will scrutinise it for signs of animation or life. With incredibly lifelike faces, the brain may be fooled into detecting a human presence; but with CGI Tintin, we're also aware that 'he' is being controlled by data and algorithms. Something as lifeless as an equation imitating life so closely causes conflict and confusion in the brain, which creeps us out.”
Particularly skin-crawling example: Hyperflesh's baby mask
Most people don't suffer from maskaphobia, or spend Halloween cowering from the three-foot-high Draculas and Darth Vaders roaming the streets. But once a mask hits uncanny valley-levels of human-like realism and it's worn by a living person, the shivers kick in. Hyperflesh's $500 crying-baby mask is one of very few examples of a product that deliberately aims for an uncanny valley effect. These unholy horrors gained viral infamy thanks to artist Jillian Mayer's 2011 YouTube hit 'I Am Your Grandma', and they've been roaming the internet and inducing cold sweats ever since.
Why is it so creepy?
“Your brain’s face-processing network will scrutinise a mask for movement and swiftly detect a lack of life,” explains Dr Ray. “However, the body wearing the mask moves like a live human, giving your brain the confusing and unsettling impression that you’re looking at a moving dead person.”
Non-living things that move as if alive
Particularly skin-crawling example: Google's BigDog robots
It's not necessary for something to look like a living being in order for it to give you the uncanny valley creeps – it can be enough for it to merely move like one. Take, for example, Google's Big Dog robots: these hulking, headless canine-droids look very little like actual dogs, but the way they trot around, up and down slopes, clambering flights of stairs...? No. No thank you. Good day, sir.
Why is it so creepy?
“Compared to most animals, including dogs, we’re weak, slow, and have feeble teeth and jaws,” says Dr Ray. “If it wasn’t for our superior intelligence, dogs would have eaten all of us for breakfast long ago. With the invention of robots that can mirror the movement, speed and agility of a dog – and that could one day be kitted out with AI that can out-think us – it feels horribly like we’re one microprocessor away from total extinction. That's why your subconscious gets the creeps.”
For now we're just going to have to sit back and watch through our fingers while graphic designers become the architects of our darkest nightmares.
By Joe Madden