No Place for robots: reassessing the bukimi no tani (“uncanny valley”)


IMAGE/University of California Press


Over the past decade, the concept of the “uncanny valley” (bukimi no tani) coined by roboticist Mori Masahiro (b. 1927), has appeared in over ten thousand (English-language) articles and chapters, Briefly, the concept presumes that the scary surprise of realizing that, say, a flesh-and-blood uman was actually a zombie will send one tumbling into a valley of existential queasiness. As an application, this effect was hypothesized by Mori as grounds for avoiding the design and manufacture of humanlike robots or androids. In this augmented and edited excerpt from chapter 6 (Cyborg-Ableism beyond the Uncanny (Valley) of my book, Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation (2018), I interrogate the ‘uncanny valley” hypothesis, which has been accorded an almost “natural-law”-like status. I critically examine Mori’s original 1970 essay in Japanese and draw attention to some of the problems posed both by translating bukimi as “uncanny” and by treating the “uncanny valley” as a self-evident truism.

What is a Robot?

Before proceeding, a brief working definition of “robot” is in order, beginning with the origin of the word itself. The English word derives from the Czech word robota, or drudge laborer or serf. Coined by litterateur Karel Capek (1890–1938) and his artist brother Josef Capek (1887–1945), the word first appeared in the former’s play, R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti [Rossum’s Universal Robots], published in 1920. The play debuted in Prague in 1921. A science-fiction melodrama with comical passages, R.U.R. is about a factory in the near future where artificial humans gendered “female” and “male” are mass-produced from protoplasmic batter as tireless workers for export all over the world.1 To make a long story short, new model robots are provided with emotions and, now able to experience anger at their exploitation, they revolt en masse, killing all but one human. R.U.R was performed in Tokyo in 1924 and sparked a fascination in Japan with robots—robotto. Even though the robots in R.U.R. are bent on destroying humans, and even though there are evil robots in Japanese science fiction, the dominant perception of robots in Japan since the 1920s has been very positive. Today, actual tangible, real-world robots are symbols of Japanese advanced technology, platforms for spin-off industries, and brand ambassadors of transnational companies like Honda’s ASIMO, Mitsubishi’s Wakamaru, Hitachi’s EMIEW, and SoftBank’s Pepper.

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