Stepping into the uncanny valley

Two weeks ago on our (can you spell ‘a-w-e-s-o-m-e’?) bus trip to NYC, Hayley and I visited American Girl Place on 5th Avenue. There, girls (that is, girls with means) can find mini-me versions of themselves (called Felicity, Elizabeth, or Lanie!), purchase matching outfits (School wear! Lounge wear! Swim wear! Camp wear!), accessorize for an infinite number of interests (Skating! Basketball! Baking! Cello!) and even bring their dolls to the salon for a new hairdo or a big girl ear piercing.

Nothing on the website yet about the availability of just-for-dolls exotic piercing or tattoo artistry to suit the interests of girls who are more in the Wednesday Addams vein. With the corner on the market of all things customizable, though, I’m sure that a Goth Girls outlet is just below the American Girl horizon.

The store was a hit, mainly because it’s just a lot of fun to see the miniature reproductions of everything in a girl’s life. The dolls were cute, the tiny clothes were cuter, and there’s something downright fun about watching real live hair stylists standing next to little pink salon chairs, combing, cutting, shovering and balloonifying little dolly heads of hair (at $10-20 a pop), while giddy girls on the verge of growing out of the doll phase look on. Things also got pretty exciting when I started to worry that we’d get kicked out of A.G. Place as Hayley and her friend whizzed mini-double strollers at top speed around the Bitty Baby boutique.

Little did I know as I admired the dolly & me Revolutionary War pajama dresses, that the dolly creep factor was about to get seriously cranked up. In fact, just this past Monday, I received my very first (and, I hope, last) My Twinn catalog. As if the double-n in ‘Twinn’ isn’t creepy enough, My Twinn is like the American Girl doll that Steven King would give to his granddaughter. You wouldn’t think it would be a problem, but the trouble is that the dolls are super-lifelike. Lifelike as in you send in a picture of your daughter and they reproduce her appearance. Lifelike as in when you place your order, you color in a facial diagram to show where your daughter’s freckles and moles are. Lifelike as in the dolls in the catalog look, um, life-threatening and the actual girls standing with them look they want to get the (blank) out of there.

Forget ‘Felicity’ and ‘Lanie.’ Think ‘Carrie’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’

The eerie overtones of the My Twinn catalog reminded me of a useful concept I’ve come across called the uncanny valley. According to a recent NPR report, roboticist (whatever that is) Masahiro Mori theorized something like this: a robot that looks kinda human is neat, fun, even cool. If the robot looks really human, that’s even better. But if a robot looks almost completely human, then—whoa, we’ve got a problem. Writer Lawrence Weschler put it this way, “…a 95 percent lifelike robot is a robot that’s incredibly lifelike. A 96 percent lifelike robot is a human being with something wrong.” Wrong, as in, something like a corpse or zombie (see the following diagram).

http://www.architecture.uwaterloo.ca/fac 1

I have to say, I like cartoonish toy robots. I appreciate cute stuffed animals. I was a little creeped out by the borderline uncanny characters in The Polar Express. But when it comes to the My Twinn dolls, I would say the valley’s more than uncanny—it’s more like the valley of the shadow of death at the hands of a freaky little doll that looks just like me!!!!

And, I ask you, what would tell your daughter “I love you” quite like that?