Metal Mickey or the Matrix… which freaks you out the most?

At the recent Mindshare Huddle I took part in a panel discussing the following question: ‘Is it game over for creatives? Can a machine do your job?’.

The aim was to talk about the influence of automation / AI on the creative process, but for me, the really interesting question was ‘Why are we all so anxious?’.`

What I find really intriguing is people’s emotional response to the whole topic of machines, robots and automation rather than the question about what machines can and can’t do. There seems so much nervousness around programmatic planning, AI technology doing creatives out of jobs and a swathe of conferences all trying to revisit ‘What makes us human’. I wondered what this is all about.`

So, there’s lots of scientific research that’s been conducted around why and when we become nervous of robots. In my mind this has got to be analogous to our fear of automation and machines more generally.`

‘Uncanny Valley’ is the hypothesis that there’s a tipping point when we go from being comfortable with robots (either in terms of the way they look, behave or sound) to suddenly being repulsed and very nervous of them – they become ‘uncannily’ human and our comfort levels take a nosedive. On the graph measuring comfort levels this is the ‘valley’ produced as we suddenly get freaked out and comfort levels plummet. `

There are lots of reasons given for this seemingly inherent fear but here’s a couple of ones I particularly like.

On a cultural level, we’ve grown up seeing images of robots that reinforce the notion that some robots are friendly and some are not. Metal Mickey was ok…the Matrix was not. Robots with funny voices, made out of toilet roll tubes and sticky tape are no threat…ones that mimic human thought patterns and spawn living young are a big threat.

At a neurological level our brains are wired to make us wary of humans that deviate from the ‘norm’. It’s why characters in films like Polar Express weird us out…they’re just too human but still clearly CGI.

So this research was conducted in the context of aesthetic robot forms BUT I’d suggest our fear of ‘robots’ and machines doing our work must trigger the same fears.

We’re programmed on lots of levels to be fearful of ‘machines’ that look and act like humans but aren’t actually human. We need to recognise and acknowledge this fear rather than discrediting the validity of how the technology can actually help.

It’s also culturally specific: other cultures just don’t have the same fear of robots as we seem to have here in the UK.

And one really BIG watch out: there’s research being conducted amongst Gen Y respondents indicating that they are not as affected by Uncanny Valley as us Baby Boomers and Gen X types.

SO, potentially it’s not “Game Over Humans’ just ‘Game Over Gen X technology-phobes’