Robot rescue! Who should we send into the uncanny valley?

Minerva-Terrace-Bicycle-Corps-001Who should we sent into the uncanny valley?  I believe anthropologists might be the right people for the job.

Wait, what’s an uncanny valley again?  As robots become more like humans, the response from humans is positive.  But as robots begin to close the gap, suddenly humans react with revulsion.  There is something chilling about a creature who is near human but not quite human enough.

A vague resemblance is good.  Something like perfect identity is good.  But in between, when the robot is very like a human but still identifiably different, that’s when we put our foot down.  That’s when we get our backs up.  That’s when we find repudiating robots and insisting on their exile in the uncanny valley.

It turns out that anthropologists are good at the uncanny valley.  After all, we spend our time looking at how humans construct and then navigate a world of meaning.  So we are alert to the small signals and involuntary communications with which humans inform other human beings about their intentions and inclinations.    A lot of this is uncanny in another sense.  It’s astounding how good we are at picking up signals that are barely visible. These are the things that robot makers find extremely difficult to program in.

To read subtle signals is the work of anthropology because it’s such a big part of humanhood.  People who can’t send signals or read them are tragic figures.  They are adrift in the very communities that locate and secure the rest of us.  They are lost in social space.  The rest of us are as satellites constantly sending and receiving GPS signals to figure out where we are relative to every thing and one else.

Incidentally, this is why we are so very interested in Autism at the moment.  Some people are bad at signaling but as Aspies  they find themselves in positions of wealth and influence because they possess other,  extraordinary powers of pattern recognition.  And this is a lovely paradox to reckon with and the reason that no fewer than five TV show that feature Aspies (including Bones, The Bridge, and The Big Bang Theory).  Generally, the digital world of innovation and code writing is a world the Aspie finds as transparent as human communities remain opaque.  (Let’s take the character Peter Gregory [as played by the recently departed Christopher Evan Welch] in the HBO show Silicon Valley as a case in point.)

So anthropologist are, I would argue, exactly the people most fit for the uncanny valley.  They are peculiarly well suiting to helping with the programming and design that can help bring robot across the valley and into the human community as fully welcome, integrated parts of it.  (editor!)

Anthropologists are good at phatic communication.  These are the little sounds we give off.  A sigh, a groan, a laugh.  Phatic communication signals our emotional and social condition.  Crucial to human relationships, but tough for programmers because it is in some engineering communities classified as “exhaust data.”  (See my investigation of this problem here.)  Robots are going to have to give off phatic signals.  So we are going to have to consult the anthropologist on this one, not the engineer.

Anthropologists are also masters of sprezzatura.  This is a big piece of human communications.  It consists in the art of learning some social convention and then making it look absolutely natural.  This is a matter of concealing art with art, as Castiglione would say.  (See by treatment of the idea here.)  These social conventions are necessarily hard to see, because the community has deliberately concealed their existence and use.  Again, it makes sense to call in the Anthropologist.

Anthropologist are good at all the signals that have been deliberately removed from view.  One of the reasons that on line meetings (telepresence) has not taken off that many bosses exert their veto power through small signals.  For instance, they may signal their disapproval of an idea by leaning back ever so slightly in their chair.  Subordinates spot this signal…or perhaps it is better to say they sense it…and the idea is nixed.  Again, this sort of thing is generally missing from robot programming.

Finally, anthropologists are good at contradiction, at the ways humans entertain conflicting thoughts and emotions, and give off mixed signals.  And this contradiction is the sort of thing that offends the very soul of a certain kind of engineer.

Of course, you don’t have to be an anthropologist to help out here.   Michael Silverstein at the University of Chicago used to talk about people who were simply supernaturally gifted at social communication.  Not surprisingly they end up in senior management, in sales, in teaching, in marketing, anywhere where their ability serves them to aid in the task of communications.   It’s also probably to that novelists should be particularly useful here.   Show runners like Beau Willimon (House of Cards), and Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin (Bates Motel) would be superb as well.  After all, they use social signals to help us construct interior conditions and social interactions.

So you don’t have to be an anthropologist.  But it helps I think if you are.  You are trained to understand the uncanny valley.   Here’s a very partial list.  Apologies to all I have excluded!  Ken Anderson, Katarina Graffman, Jane Fulton Suri, Mark Dawson, Charles Starrett, Robbie Blinkoff, Rita Denny, Timothy de Waal Malefyt, Emilie Hitch, German Dziebel, Miriam Lueck Avery, Amy Santee, Richard Wise, Patricia Sachs Chess, Phil Surles, Morgan Gerard, Melissa Cefkin, Susan Menke, to name a few.  Ok, a lot.  (People missing from this list are going to be so mad at me.  Apologies all around.)  These people can help us across the uncanny valley.

Image:

“Bicyclists’ group on Minerva Terrace. [Lt. James A. Moss’s company of 25th Infantry, U. S. Army Bicycle Corps, from Fort Missoula, Montana.] YNP.”  October 7, 1896.

From scarcity to abundance, the new creative surpluses on TV

22b3d3da86aef9a2ea7ab5c038ec6c15Spoiler alerts for:  
Game of Thrones
Luther, Homeland
The Good Wife
House of Cards
Nashville, Scandal
Arrow, Teen wolf

Rest in peace:

Ned Stark (Sean Bean) on Game of Thrones

DS Riply (Warren Brown) on Luther

Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) on Homeland

Will (Josh Charles) on The Good Wife

Zoe (Kate Mara) on House of Cards

Peggy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and Lamar (Powers Boothe) on Nashville

James (Dan Bucatinsky) on Scandal

Moira (Susanna Thompson) on Arrow

Allison (Crystal Reed) on Teen Wolf

The characters of TV are falling.  No one is safe.  Zoe on House of Cards appeared to be a character so dear to our hearts, so embedded in the HoC narrative, she was safe from harm.  This made her death on a subway platform in the first episode of the new season especially shocking.

The old convention was clear.  TV was bound by a contract.  Once the audience had connected to a character, once we had identified with that character, the character got a pass.  Nothing bad could ever happen to them.  They were safe from harm.  Especially on a subway platform.  Well, everywhere really.

But now that so many of these TV characters are dying, something is clearly up. Melissa Maerz of Entertainment Weekly sees dark motives.  She believes that shows use these deaths as a way to goose ratings and build buzz.  These deaths, she suggests, may be  “gimmicks.”

Maybe.  We could look at this another way.  In the old TV, characters represented an investment and an achievement.  In spite of its creaky, often predictable mechanics and talent shortages, TV  managed to make a creature we found credible.  Life was created.  (Even if it did resemble the work of Dr. Frankenstein.)

In fact, writers weren’t all the good at creating new characters.  And we, as viewers, weren’t all that good at grasping these characters.  This was, after all, an era of creative scarcity.  In this world, characters got a pass not for humane reasons, but because they were triumphs against the odds.  Once we writers and viewers had conspired to cocreate a character, whew, job done, and let’s not put this miracle at risk.

But these days, show runners and writers are less like Dickensian accountants, and more like drunken lords of endless liberality.  “You don’t like that character, well and good.  How about this one?  Want another?  I’ll work something up over lunch.”  The new creative potentiality on tap in TV is virtually depthless.

Why?  Better writers have come to TV.  All writers have more creative freedom.  Every show runner is eager to take new risks.  They recruit the writers who can help them do so.   Actors are demanding new and juicier roles.  The industry is a little less an industry and now a creative community, where the depths of talent are so extraordinary something fundamental has changed.  This world (and our culture) has gone from one of scarcity to one of plenty.

And we viewers are helping.  We got better too.  We are smarter, more alert, better at complexity, unfazed by novelty, and apparently, so possessed of new cognitive gifts that you can throw just about anything at us and we will rise to the occasion.

We viewers may once have struggled to master the complexities of a show, and resented anyone who taxed us with new characters.  Now that’s part of the fun.  Throw stuff at us.  We can handle it.  Indeed, increasingly, we demand it.  Viewers are happy to meet new characters and see what they bring to existing and emerging narratives.

Perhaps killing off characters is not a gimmick after all.   This might be a way TV manages to keep itself fresh and engage the new cognitive gifts of their viewers.

This is one of the things we can expect to happen as popular culture becomes culture.   TV was once the idiot brother of literature, of theater, of cinema, of the Arts.  No self-respecting writer wanted to go there.

Then, quite suddenly, they did.  (I think of David Milch as Writer Zero, the first man of astonishing talent to buck the trend and make the transition.)  And in the 35 years since Milch made the move, many have followed.  These days just about everyone is banging on the door.  Even people who thought they wanted to write for Hollywood.  And this takes us from that “make-do” model that prevailed on both sides of the camera.  (TV did the best with what it had, and viewers made do with the best they could find.)  Over 35 years, we have seen the death of good-enough TV.

As the migration of talent continues, everything changes.  Creative scarcity gives way to creative abundance.  Pity the shows that have yet to get the memo.  And watch, ultimate spoiler alert, for more of your favorite characters to die.   With our new creative surpluses, there are more where they came from.  Plenty more.

Netflix has big data, and that’s a tragedy

It’s not hard to imagine why Netflix has decided to focus on original programming (most recently with House of Cards and now with an animated children’s series). Making oneself an exclusive source for a show starring Kevin Spacey is a great way to sweeten the value proposition and compete with Hulu and Amazon. Plus, eventually every grocer wants to be a P&G. Why merely manage the channel when you can start filling it?

But Hollywood is not just any industry. It’s the true north of our culture. To become a broker here! Think of the power! Think of the parties! And this is why so many are called. Everyone would like to be a player and Hollywood is littered with the wreckage of careers of people who looked at the entertainment industry and thought, “I would love to be a big shot and, anyhow, how hard can it be?” It turns out that making entertainment is extremely hard. Even Disney can make a stinker like John Carter. Even very talented people (the Weinstein brothers or Bonnie Hammer, for instance) make mistakes.

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