Much has been said about the uncanny valley in relation to how technology has advanced over the past few years, but less said about how that hypothesis applies to speculative fiction.
For those of you who haven’t heard about the hypothesis of the uncanny valley, I’ve provided a quick look at it on my blog, in a post called Crossing the Uncanny Valley. Feel free to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with it before continuing.
Ok, so now that we all know what the uncanny valley is, how does that apply to speculative fiction? How do we weave that into a world of make-believe, and make that world more believable? Let’s take a look as close as fifty years into the future to find out.
That far into the future, not only will AI have crossed the uncanny valley, but robotics will have as well. I predict it will be completely possible to create android life using a combination of artificially engineered genetics and machine intelligence. By then, the field of genetics will have successfully figured out how to create DNA from scratch. Coupled with machine intelligence, these androids will be virtually indistinguishable from humans. They will essentially be a race of super humans, created for specific purpose and function. They would most certainly be able to access any type or amount of virtual information in mere seconds, giving them super human intelligence as well.
They could do tasks which are inherently dangerous, boring, difficult or otherwise undesirable for a human to accomplish. They could be employed in areas that are inhospitable for humans to survive, such as in extreme heat or cold, or in environments without oxygen. We’re already well on the way to the breakthroughs enabling us to create them, with technology such as bulletproof skin already in the works.
They could be our undersea explorers, our astronauts, those we send to clean and repair nuclear disasters. They would serve a wide variety of purposes for us, while not taking a substantial amount of jobs away from real humans. They would be us, but improved, able to do things longer, better, faster, harder.
But with the growth of technology, there is always a dark side. There are always those who would pervert technology to serve their own purposes. How long would it be before hackers decided to exploit an android to use it for some agenda of chaos? How long would it be before we saw androids programmed to kill, or to sabotage commerce, networks or any number of infrastructure necessities? One need only look to recent news about the anarchic group Anonymous to see the potential for disaster here.
Soon we would need more androids to police other androids, to prevent this sort of thing from happening. After all, something with such intelligence and abilities would certainly require a like entity to keep it under control.
And from there we’d figure out right away it would be easier to have androids design future androids. We have already automated most of our industry as it is, from the vehicles to computers. It’s not a stretch to think android intelligence will design better android intelligence before humans do.
After that, who knows? I don’t think the world is going to end in some post-apocalyptic chaos caused by machines hell-bent on eliminating all human life. I don’t think we’ll ever have a human-android war. Or we might. We might just have to fight back when they begin restricting and controlling us for our own good and the good of the planet.
But if these androids were so perfect, so indistinguishable from humans, how would we ever be able to tell them apart from another human? Aside from taking them in for an MRI or CAT scan, how would we identify them as androids? How would we know them to be able to resist? It wouldn’t be their bodies. They would still eat and drink, because their bodies would have human genetics the same as we would. Research has already opened up possibilities in tissue regeneration and cell maintenance, meaning they’d be just like us, only they wouldn’t have to age and die.
I think the answer is easier and far less technical than one might think at first. I think they’ll be easy to tell apart from humans. Why? Because instead of coming up short, and failing to cross the uncanny valley, they’ll have crossed over completely, to the point where they’re past being human. They will uncover yet another uncanny valley, the other side of human, where our attraction again turns to revulsion. Like the actor with witty repertoire at all the right moments, they will be too perfect, too human. Eerily so.
And that is where the real horror lies. Because as they realize this, they will again modify themselves to be more human, with all the foibles and mistakes we might expect from a real human. They will no longer be the prettiest, the smartest, the best. The keen intelligence will be disguised by dullness, faux forgetfulness, and carefully planned mistakes. The steel strength and power obscured by wrinkled skin and a slack handshake.
They will be out there, among us. A race of immortals, created to mimic and imitate, with no history, no childhood, and no humanity.