Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bionic Hike through the Uncanny Valley

Bionic Hike through the Uncanny Valley

In March, BBC news featured an article on Nicola and her decision for a prosthetic hand. It would involve an elective amputation of the intact hand. Why even consider? Twelve years ago, she was involved in an car accident and lost function of her hand. She underwent different therapies, even nerve transplant; nothing worked. Until she met Dr. Aszmann. The good doctor performed two previous operations where he amputated and install bionic hands for the patients.

Until very recently, prosthetic limbs operated either through a system of cables or motor-powered switches that controlled by another part of the body. If that sounds confusing, imagine the training. Not for Nicola, she can control the hand directly with her mind. Essentially, it is the mind/machine interface.

Go Go, Mind-Blowing Hand!

This article is actually part of a BBC series Can you build a bionic body? Wait, are we actually having this discussion? Yes, science and technology makes leaps, and occasionally kicks sci-fi in those failed hurdles, but this approaches the uncanny valley from a new direction.
Probably from behind and maybe strangling it

In case, you're unfamiliar with the concept of the uncanny valley: robot is more empathic as it becomes more human. If it becomes too human, we become revolted. However, if we see another human, then our reaction returns to empathy. Hence, the dip in our reaction is the uncanny valley:

Ironic mustaches...they think they are people

The uncanny valley does apply to other things, such as 3D animations and zombies. The phenomenon explains why critics felt unease with many 3D animations, such as PolarExpress. We knew these animations are so close but yet so far. Masahiro Mori, the coiner of the term, mused that this 'valley' is a reflection of our morality. Hence why he placed zombies in the abyss of the valley. Mori is not alone. Some theorize this revulsion behind uncanny valley has some evolutionary basis. Theories range from sickness, again your zombies and infected, to violation of social norms, your creeps and serial killers.

First draft of Flo, the Progressive mascot. And they still did not get out of the valley.

Uncanny valley tipped off some sort of sickness but this is where Nicola's surgery changes the rules. The valley warned us something is amiss, malfunctioning. As if a subtle infiltration has taken hold; like robots displacing humans. Now, humans are sacrificing their biological part and merging with the robots. We are descending that valley from the other end. So prosthetics right now are not quite the same as natural body parts. And these elective operations bring somewhat normal function, not superhuman. But be damned, we're close.

And we hate quitters

Once science reaches that tipping point and make prosthetics more advantageous than our natural parts, then designer babies and uncanny valley be damned. The kicker is the tipping point arrived in our psyche. The photo above is athlete Oscar Pistorius. Back in 2008, he appealed, and won, a court decision that banned him the Olympics. Well, of course! He is disabled but that was not the reason. A committee originally thought his prosthetics legs, carbon-fiber blades nonethless, would give him an unfair advantage. The leg blades left them with the impression allowed him to run faster than the other competitors. He is allowed to compete both in the Paralympics and the Olympics. Hmmm, turning an abundant material like carbon into gold? We have ourselves an alchemist we can aspire to; sorry Paulo Coelho.

Wired: now an awesome fashion magazine

Eyes down here. Her name is Aimee Mullins. Like Oscar above, she is too an accomplished athlete but also a runway model, actress, and most importantly a speaker. Go ahead, click that. I'll wait. It is a very empowering video and a sober look at prosthetics. She has different legs for different events and as you can see: she is not hampered but somewhat privileged. She stands as testament to a rather growing population.

The United States has the highest rate of amputation in the first world but hold off the protests. While traumatic amputation steeply inclined in the past decade; the majority comes from disease, mainly diabetes. Diabetes will only grow while troop withdraw will cut down on the traumatic amputations. Even worse, the rate of diabetes in teenager is growing.

Let the ridiculousness distract you. Like in real life...yup.

Imperfections/disabilities turned into bitchin'/horrifying body modifications fill the annals of the past centuries. First, the above picture illustrates one of the greatest hints of a period piece: the bitchin' powdered wig. This wig style kicked off with King Louis XIII of France wearing one to hide his fading hair. So yeah, its a toupée. From the 1660s, it spread amongst the elites of Europe. Eventually, it died with the tax on powder from England and the French Revolution. Tunneling down the center, we come to China and footbinding. Take a baby girl's feet, break them, wrap them tightly so that they cannot grow and that is footbinding. So, how the hell did we get this? Concubines. In particular, one concubine who bound, deformed, her feet to form a particular shape and a local ruler adored this. And the practice spread through the dynasties, as elite men preferred wives with that particularly shaped feet. Oh, it has been banned several times throughout the centuries but the connection between footbinding and socioeconomic mobility through marriage was very hard to break. The practice did not end in popularity until Communist rule. So, one point to human rights?

Amie Mullins as...Cheetara?

So we are at the crossroads; prosthetics are getting better and more people with deeper pockets are in need of them. At the heart of body modification, and fashion, is to attain the elitist status by reflect our higher socioeconomic standing, rather it be true or not. Will we cut off our limbs to reach that ever-glorious status? How people use cancer-causing UV lights and toxic spray-on for that bitchin' tan? How people take diet pills, some with heart damaging effects, go on fad diets or rearrange our intestines for that skinny jean body? And how many of those people do you know? So modern, Western people can look like the poor from the per-industrial revolution. Before modern industries, most people worked those fields til they were bronzed skeletons and the elites looked like our rednecks and comic book guys with powdered wigs. The information age is upon us. And the revolution in our appearance is indeed at the crossroads, somewhere in that uncanny valley.

We have the make LSD ads

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