The Uncanny Canyon: Part II

In part I we learned about the relationship between humans and artificial beings, such as androids and toasters. We also learned about the plight of such beings which are too human to be treated like a robot, but too robotic to be human. Unfortunately, robots are not the only creatures trapped at the depths of the uncanny.

The graph we looked at in Part I was merely a two dimensional interpretation of a larger concept: the Uncanny Canyon.

Each line, or valley, is a representation of only one variety of the condemned. The canyon depicts the rejection, by humans, of the uncanny – that which closely resembles the familiar, but is not familiar. When we encounter something that is ordinary, yet strange, we can experience cognitive dissonance, resulting in the abjection of that uncanny thing. Basically, we reject that which imitates, or resembles, what we know and love. Anything which rings the bells of familiarity, yet is foreign to us, is a counterfeit and is treated with suspicion, including other people.

Whether we live in a multicultural or agricultural society, we find ways to separate ourselves from others and define our identity. Our clothes, speech, diet, musical taste and preferred sport – we use them all to distinguish ourselves as individuals. However, there is more to identity than individuality, for humans also have a desire to belong. We find others who share our behavior and preference, uniting with them to define our social identity.

Many wars which may appear to have been fought over money, power or religion, were actually fought over identity. In order to have a war, or any conflict, we must have an us and a them, and this distinction is most often made over small differences. If there was no identity, there would be no conflict in the world, but, whether by primal instinct or social convention, identity has become essential. This is why we are suspicious of others who resemble ourselves; they are a threat to our identity. Let’s look at some situations, both historical and ongoing, in which sharing similar behavior, origin and preference has led to rejection and conflict.

  • Schoolyard rivalries
  • Horde vs. Alliance
  • The Rwandan Genocide
  • Nintento vs. Sega
  • Protestants vs. Catholics
  • Mac vs. PC

In all of these examples the two sides share far more in common with each other than they share with any other group. PC users and Mac users may seem drastically dissimilar, sharing no more in common than John Hodgman does with Justin Long, but they actually only disagree on minor differences in user interface. Because the two sides share so much in common, they take intentional measures to segregate themselves from each other by creating unique vocabulary and launching ad campaigns.

High school is a breeding ground for us vs. them behavior. Even though the students may all be of similar age, live in the same area, have the same teachers and attend same classes, they are compulsed to separate themselves from each other, banding into rivalrous factions.

Without similarity, there is no conflict, for those who are vastly different from us cause only curiosity, not contempt. The reason for this conflict is because these groups have enough in common to make them suspicious of each other, but not enough to unite them, for unity is a part of human nature, but unity only with those who have crossed the Uncanny Canyon.

The Uncanny Canyon: Part I

In the world of robotics there is a peculiar and well-known phenomenon known as the Uncanny Valley. In case you haven’t heard of it, we will briefly define the concept. If you would like to know more, please take a moment to e-search the subject before we continue.

The term Uncanny Valley was first used by a 1,970 year old Japanese robot named Masahiro Mori to describe how people react to humanoid robots, or androids. Some machines are not humanoid at all, such as the toaster, and we do not feel anything for them, apart from a mild appreciation for making our lives more delicious. We treat anthropomorphic contraptions like ASIMO as, in my opinion, a domesticated animal, such as a raccoon or bunny rabbit. The idea is that as robots become more human-like, we treat them with more respect and affection, but only until they reach the edge of the Uncanny Valley.

When encountering an artificial being, whether it’s an android or a computer generated character, we empathize with that being to a level appropriate with its appearance and personality. For example, R2-D2 does not have a humanoid body, but she does have a simple vocabulary of bleeps and whistles which allows us to empathize with the droid. C-3PO, on the other hand, has human form and is fluent in over six million forms of communication, though they must be spoken with a dainty English accent; his appearance and character elicit a response similar to what we would give an annoying child. One would think that as synthetic beings surpassed this stage, they would be welcomed as equals into society. Instead, they tumble down into the depths of rejection.

When a robot such as Wall-E or Johnny 5 embarks on an adventure, we are drawn in by their emotional journey, fragile whimpers and large eyes, but when we saw Actroid unveiled in 2003, something was clearly wrong. There’s no doubt that Actroid is more human in voice and appearance than any of the other androids we’ve mentioned, but there is something unsettling about a machine which so closely resembles ourselves. Theories range from a fear of robot dissent to the existential threat to our individualism – knowing that we could be copied or replaced. For now, let’s agree that there is just something creepy about these machines.

There is hope for aspiring androids; they can ascend out of the Uncanny Valley. Some say that by adding comical features we may restore emotional attachment to these rejected robots, but this merely pulls them backward, toward less convincing models. In order for these machines to achieve equality with humans, they must break through the barrier of believability and earn our love by an impeccable imitation, leaving not a hint of suspicion.

Today, androids of this caliber must still reside in the land of fiction. In movies and television their roles are filled by actors wearing cosmetics and costumes. Some motion pictures have attempted to capture the human form using computer generated images, but none have quite convinced audiences of the legitimacy of their characters.

In part II we will explore what the Uncanny Valley can teach us about subjects beyond the mechanical imitation of human beings.


Why do humans domesticate animals? Obviously, we harvest them for their delicious meat and furry skin, harness their strength for transportation and agriculture and breed them to be sold. But to capture and cage an animal merely to enjoy its presence? This is surely a strange thing to do.

There are some unique reasons for humans taking animals into captivity: the owner could be disabled, using the animal to enhance their deteriorating sense of smell, the animal could also be used to fight crime by sniffing suitcases at the airport, or perhaps the owner desired to impress their friends by purchasing an exotic pet, such as an orangutan or rhinoceros. These explanations are certainly legitimate, but the majority of pets are purchased at a young age, before they can fight crime or plow fields, and many species, such as cats, are neither useful, exotic nor do they make steadfast companions. The most common reason why a human will buy a pet is that it is cute.

If we imagine a cuddly baby animal, we usually think of a kitten or puppy, for they are the most common cuties picked up from local pet shops, but our appetite for the adorable extends to rodents and reptiles as well. Baby goats, turtles, owls and bears – we love them all – but why? What is it about these infant creatures that makes us want to pick them up, snuggle them and mutter high-pitched gibberish?

Most of us associate adorability with certain morphological proportions. One attribute commonly associated with cuteness is large eyes, but the creature with the largest eyes in proportion to its body is the vampire squid, which is hardly a cuttlefish. Another proportional association, commonly observed in newborn humans, is short limbs and an oversize head. However, Tyrannosaurus is famous for its incredibly short arms and is known as a modern icon of savage predation. As well, a sperm whale’s head can grow to 1,400 cubic feet (one-third of its body size), and they are awful brutes, undeserving of affection. Perhaps proportion isn’t the solution.

Maybe the answer is behavior. We recognize certain whimpers and cries as cute sounds, but that is probably because we know that they are coming from a adorable, vulnerable life form. Newborns are also noticeably clumsier and less stable than their adult counterparts. Clumsy babies are definitely cute, but there’s nothing cute about a grown person falling down – it is merely hilarious.

Many of us associate cuteness with size, since young animals are both smaller and cuter than adults. However, being smaller than an adult does not guarantee that an animal will be cute. Pandas, for example, are born as hideous, pink, eyeless blobs. The animal must be both small in comparison to an adult, as well as recognizable as one of its kind. It seems as though the vital characteristic that all cute baby animals share is that they are a shrunken version of an adult of their species. Now that we know how they can be cute, we can begin to wonder why they are cute.

When we encounter a young animal, we are overcome with concern for the tiny creature. This could be an instinct which causes us to care for our young, but why would it make us concerned for the young of another species? Adorability could be a trick that young animals use to discourage predators from devouring them, which explains why humans tend to feel guilty about eating young animals. Unfortunately for lambs, they are far too delicious for their cuteness to save them. Perhaps cuteness is merely an emotional reaction to observing the fragility of an unusually small version of a creature. These explanations seem viable, but cuteness can be found in places outside of the animal kingdom.

If small size and resemblance to adults is what makes baby animals cute, this could also apply to any other miniature replication. When we shrink down spoons, dolls, food and furniture, they also become adorable, and they aren’t even alive! Do not be deceived; cuteness is merely an instinctive concern for fragility brought on by the observation of an unusually tiny version of an object or creature.

Remember, baby turtles and alligators may seem like a cute idea for a pet, but they grow up!


People enjoy their French fries with a variety of condiments, seasonings and sauces. Applying these savory supplements is simple and fun, unless, of course, you want vinegar on your fries.

Vinegar, also called vinny, is dispensed at restaurants in glass bottles which are terribly inaccurate, unpredictable and unsafe. The vinegar either drips straight down from the bottle, completely soaking one French fry, or it is launched over the plate, entirely. The problem is that the nozzle only has one small hole which is not large enough to allow for the simultaneous exit of vinegar and entrance of air. This unidirectional nozzle, when attached to a bottle which cannot expand or contract, produces a dangerous and erratic stream of acidic liquid.

Over the decades, condiment containers have evolved in shape, size and spout. From the classic glass Heinz ketchup bottle to the modern upside-down plastic squeeze models, companies have poured millions of dollars into developing new and exciting sauce vessels. Unfortunately for vinegar lovers, there is no major distributor developing new containers for you. Restaurants continue to purchase ancient condiment dispensary technology and pay their employees to clean up the mess.

There are many potential solutions to this problem. We could be using eyedroppers, soap pumps or even a Windex bottle to gently mist our food. Misting our food with sauces and dressings? Now that is a good idea.

Mating Souls

Many of us go through life feeling incomplete and isolated, as if there is one special person out there who can make us whole again. This extraordinary person is often refered to as our soul mate. While some are fortunate enough to find this person and embark on a voyage into the sea of love, others are destined to wallow in the puddles of solitude.

Here’s some bad news for you hopeless romantics: soul mates don’t exist, at least not in the way that you would like to imagine. The concept of a soul mate is as complex and diverse as it is vague and oversimplified, maybe more so. Let us begin by defining each individual word before attempting to unravel the mystery of the soul mate.

soul. [sohl] -noun.

1. the spiritual aspect of human beings, representing thought, feeling and identity; eternal and distinct from the physical body.

2. currency which can be traded for Alf pogs.

mate. [meyt]


1. a spouse, counterpart, comrade or partner.


2. what your parents do on Sunday nights, a term falsely used to describe the manufacturing of babies.

So if we combine these words, using the definitions above, the term soul mate should be defined as follows:

soul mate. [sohl-meyt] -noun.

1. a human being’s spiritual spouse or counterpart, with whom they have soul sex.

Given this definition, the existence of soul mates seems like a reasonable conclusion, unless you reject monogamy or the existence of the soul. Barring these qualifiers, it is perfectly plausible that each of us have soul mates. However, there is an additional concept attached to this definition which renders the idea inconceivable: monosoulmatism.

Monosoulmatism is a doctrine which holds that each human being has only one soul mate. This doctrine is essential for the romanticization of the idea of soul mates. People are comforted and enchanted by the idea there is one perfect person out there, waiting to burst into their lives. Conversely, there is nothing magical about knowing that we could have 50 soul mates in our city alone.

Perhaps we are overestimating how unique we are when we conclude that only one person on Earth is right for us. One person in seven billion? What are the chances that we might even meet this person? Even if we happened to encounter them, with 225 countries and approximately 6,800 languages, we would most certainly have nothing in common with them. Those who believe in monosoulmatism argue that there is some cosmic force, sometimes called fate, which ensures that we will encounter our soul mate. We are supposed to believe that this mysterious power would also make certain that we would speak the same language and be of similar age. How else could so many people find their soul mate in their home town?

Even if all of those conditions were met, there’s still the problem of deciphering the identity of our soul mate. We could meet our soul mate, but unless we had some way to know, we might not pay any attention to them; we could walk past them in a grocery store and never know it. This is why those who are searching for their soul mate are overcome with paranoia, often latching on to every new acquaintance who could be the one. Ironically, this behavior substantially lowers their chances of finding a mate. Of course, fate will make sure that they both fall in love anyway.

There is also the problem of the sex ratio – for every 100 female babies born, there are 105 to 107 males. Perhaps we are should conclude that the cosmic force generates additional homosexual males to compensate for this, or merely plots the demise of these extra boys.

Divorce is another problem for monosoulmatists. Marriages and other serious relationships often end unexpectedly, does this mean that these people are leaving their soul mates? Believing that we have one soul mate can make us skeptical of our lover, sewing seeds of doubt as to whether or not they are truly our soul mate, for if our spouse doesn’t feel like they are our soul mate, then perhaps they are not our soul mate.

Whether they exist or not, believing that you have a soul mate does not help you find them, neither does it increase your chance of having soul sex.

Movie Twins

What do the following movies have in common?

  • The Illusionist
  • Event Horizon
  • The Brave One
  • Dante’s Peak
  • The Thirteenth Floor
  • Deep Impact
  • A Bug’s Life
  • Kickass
  • The Truman Show
  • Mission to Mars

No, the answer is not that they are all memorable films released in the past 15 years, though that is true. The answer is that all of these titles have a movie twin. 

A movie twin is a film which shares its general storyline and release date with another movie. Dante’s Peak and Volcano, for example, were both documentaries released in 1997, which depict the disastrous effects of a lava on the human body, while Mission to Mars and Red Planet, two films released in 2000, both portray the perilous journey of a crew on their expedition to a desert in space.

On occasion, movies are spoofed by low-budget counterfeits, intended to leech off the hype of the original film; this does not result in a movie twin. For example, Battle: Los Angeles and Battle of Los Angeles are not movie twins, since Battle of Los Angeles was a straight-to-DVD release, and no legitimate film ever went straight to DVD.

It is hard to imagine that two movies with analogous subject matter could be produced at the same time by coincidence. So are movie twins just well-made knockoffs? Not likely, since these films enlist respected directors, accomplished actors and have sizable budgets. In fact, movie twins tend to be of such similar quality that intense debate often breaks out between friends over which twin is superior.

Maybe it’s a conspiracy. Movie companies could be instructed by the government to produce multiple titles with a certain theme in order to induce uncertainty in the mind of the public. Using these movies, the government preys on our inherent fear of insects, magicians, virtual reality and space travel in order to control us. Conspiracies are difficult to accept, however, since they falsely presuppose that government is organized and competent.

Perhaps the movie companies are all in cahoots. When an executive at Warner Bros. gets a hold of good script, he phones up his old college roommate at 20th Century Fox and gives him a heads-up. How else could two “competing” companies come up with the same idea at the same time?

Whatever their cause, movie twins are great because they give us an opportunity to argue over which film is better. Our choice of movie twin can often be attributed to personal preference, but there is just no way that The Illusionist is better than The Prestige.

For reference, here’s a list of some of the more well-known movie twins:

  • Dead Man Down / Only God Forgives
  • The Black Dahlia / Hollywoodland
  • Matrix / The Thirteenth Floor
  • Alfie / Closer
  • White House Down / Olympus has Fallen
  • Despicable Me / Megamind
  • Pandorum/Cargo
  • Friends with Benefits / No Strings Attached
  • Gordy / Babe
  • Mirror Mirror / Snow White and The Huntsman
  • Inception / The Adjustment Bureau
  • Rio / Rango
  • Over The Hedge / Madagascar
  • Bicentennial Man / A.I. Artificial Intelligence
  • Event Horizon / Sphere
  • The Book of Eli / The Road
  • Babel / Crash
  • Traffic / Blow
  • Gone in Sixty Seconds / The Fast and the Furious
  • Powder / Phenomenon
  • Jumper / Push
  • Volcano / Dante’s Peak
  • The Brave One / Death Sentence
  • Mission to Mars / Red Planet
  • The Truman Show / EdTV
  • A Bug’s Life / Antz
  • Deep Impact / Armageddon
  • The Illusionist / Prestige
  • Kickass / Super
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen / Hellboy
  • Green Hornet / Green Lantern
  • Watchmen / Franklin
  • Nine / 9
  • The Mist / The Fog
  • Aeon Flux / Ultraviolet
  • My Boss’s Daughter / In Good Company