Coming late to the Big (Uncanny) Valley

One of the things about working at a place like MIT is that you lose your sense of the state of common cultural knowledge.  I don’t think of myself as web or tech savvy — and I’m right, by the standards of my students, and certainly by those of my colleagues over in Building 32.

But I thought everyone knew about the uncanny valley — it has been around for a while, and it has had a run in popular culture that runs pretty deep — think of the role the question of the resemblance between robot and human in Blade Runner, for example.

Not so, though.  This weekend, foreign policy and pop culture maven Matthew Yglesias expressed his surprise that he had to wait for Tyler Cowen and Jason Kottke to tell him about the idea.

Two things.

First, a bit of programmatic self aggrandizement:  Matt! You didn’t have to wait so long.

If you had trawled really hard through the intertubes you could have found the short documentary on this page in which MIT humanoid roboticist and IRobot founder Rod Brooks discusses the valley in the context of Domo, a robot designedmby his student Aaron Edsinger. The artist Pia Lindman weighs in as well, siding with Edsinger on which side of the valley one wants to reside.  The film was made by a team of students in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — which is where my self interest lies.

Second, more globally.  What I said above about misidentifying knowledge as shared impinges on a debate, or at least a complaint I hear all the time in what is now a career long (quarter of a century +) participation in endless lamentations on the state of public understanding of science.

That is: very little of what seems, obvious, even basic, in most disciplines is in fact common cultural currency.  Often, when something does seep out, it does so with a conflation between the definitions of words used in technical senses, and the meanings of those same words as understood in daily conversation.  Think “marginal,” for example, or even “quantum,” — or for the most contentious area these days, how about  “genetic?”

I’m not sure where to go with this thought — hey, this is a blog! — but it does make me want to push much harderwhat has become one of the defining themes of this blog .  I’ve written a bunch of times — an example here, and another here — about the much greater importance of understanding how scientists think, compared with that of knowing many of the details of what scientists have learned lately.  It’s not that the latter is uninteresting or unimportant; its just that most of what the public needs to know turns on ways of thinking about daily, material reality.

Enough bloviating for a morning.  Watch the video. Have a little fun.

Illustration:  Not Darryl Hannah.  Mars MER Robot, courtesy of NASA.  Source, Wikimedia Commons.

Explore posts in the same categories: Art and science, big ideas, good public communication of science, Science Fiction, science writing, Self-aggrandizement, Technology

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One Comment on “Coming late to the Big (Uncanny) Valley”

  1. monado Says:

    Examples that spring to mind: “learning curve,” which is properly a law in economics that the more you make of something, the cheaper it gets to make per unit; technical terms, where one reviewer will say that a term is an industry standard and doesn’t need to be defined and another will ask me where I dug that up–both senior technical staff in the same department.


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