Venturing into the ‘uncanny valley’
M3GAN is the latest creation from James Wan, the filmmaker behind the Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring franchises.
This article originally appeared in the Feb'23 magazine issue of Electronic Specifier Design – see ES's Magazine Archives for more featured publications.
Built by a roboticist named Gemma, M3GAN is an artificially intelligent, life-like prototype doll designed to be a child’s best friend and a helping hand to parents. Once bonded, M3GAN will listen to, watch, learn, and even empathise with her chosen child.
During the film, Gemma becomes the caretaker of her orphaned 8-year-old niece. Unsure of how to deal with the girl’s grief of losing her parents, Gemma decides to pair her M3GAN prototype with her niece Cady. This becomes a very regrettable decision when M3GAN decides to take her protection detail a little too far…
There is actually very little that’s new with the plot of this film. It’s basically a more technologically advanced version of Chucky. But it’s not really the film that I’m interested in, it’s the sense of the ‘uncanny valley’ that you get when you watch films of this nature.
Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori first coined the term in 1970 and it refers to the sense of uneasiness we often feel when inanimate objects take on humanistic qualities – in this case, a robot that walks, talks, and looks like a human child.
In his seminal essay for Japanese journal Energy, Mori wrote:
Venturing into the ‘uncanny valley’ I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the uncanny valley.
Later in the essay, Mori describes the uncanny valley by using an example of the first prosthetic hands:
One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on a par with false teeth. However, when we realise the hand, which at first sight looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.
M3GAN certainly does nothing to alleviate our fear that robots designed and created to work alongside humans are becoming a real phenomenon – one that leaves us with a growing sense of unease.
In 2017, Facebook was forced to shut down two robots – nicknamed Bob and Alice – after it appeared they were speaking to each other in a strange language only they understood. Researchers noticed that the robots had started to make up their own code words. Similarly, our headlines are full of ChatGPT stories because the dialogue-based bot, launched by OpenAI, can write and draw practically anything from essays, news articles, and song lyrics to works of art – without human beings being able to tell the difference! That’s the scary thing!
The idea of AI-based systems excites us because we love to explore and develop new technology that can assist us in our daily lives but at the same time, we also fear what we cannot control. It’s only natural.
So, how long until we develop something that wants to control us? How long till perhaps we have a ChatGPT-enabled robotic ‘doll’ on our shelves called M3GAN…?