The Valley of the Shadow of Death
The “uncanny valley” is a theory described in 1970 by robotics professor Masahiro Mori which posits that as a robot’s appearance becomes more human-like, observer affinity towards it will increase until the likeness reaches a certain threshold, after which affinity will drop sharply into the negative—the uncanny valley—before rebounding again towards levels exhibited toward ordinary, healthy-appearing humans. The theory has received more widespread exposure since the advent of 3-D animated films, where attempted realistic depictions of human characters have sometimes resulted in quite negative viewer reactions, citing “creepiness” of the characters, despite animators’ efforts to render them as close to life (and presumably not-creepy) as possible.
The phenomenon is not unique to humans—it has been observed in monkeys presented with photographs and 3-D rendered images of monkey faces of varying degrees of realism. Mate selection and pathogen avoidance have been suggested as possible evolutionary reasons why subtle deviation from appearance norms would evoke a stronger negative response than a more substantial deviation. However, one researcher, Roger K. Moore has come up with an explanation of the uncanny valley effect, using Bayesian models, that suggests that the effect applies to all conceptual categories (to some degree), not just human vs. non-human.
According to Moore, “the uncanny valley effect is a particular manifestation of… [the] ‘perceptual magnet effect’, in which stimuli close to a category boundary are judged by observers to be more dissimilar than stimuli that are away from a category boundary”. Where membership in one category or the other is determined by reference to more than one perceptual cue, and these cues are in conflict with each other, the differential distortion that results at the class boundary will cause “a form of perceptual ‘tension’… [that] may be experienced as physical or emotional discomfort, e.g. feelings of eeriness or creepiness.”
Moore posits that the drop in affinity described by Mori is a function of (1) decreased familiarity near the class boundary between a ‘target’ perception (i.e. human) and a ‘background’ perception’ that does not overlap significantly with the target (i.e. non-human), and (2) perceptual tension arising from conflicting cues to category membership. Individual observers have varying sensitivities to perceptual conflict, so the depth of the valley will differ from observer to observer, but the feelings of creepiness/eeriness “may induce the observer to take action in such a way as to reduce its effect.” Moore suggests four possible behavioral responses: withdrawal, attack, willfully ignoring one or more conflicting cues (‘turning a blind eye’), or integrating the new information into the category schema (i.e. habituation). Which behavior results from a particular stimulus depends on the stimulus itself, and intrinsic properties of the observer. Moore’s model even accounts for the different curves Mori proposed for still human-like artifacts versus moving ones. However, Moore asserts that “the model derived here provides a more general mathematical explanation… for a range of real-world situations in which conflicting perceptual cues give rise to negative, fearful or even violent reactions.”
One piece that I believe is missing from Moore’s explanation of the uncanny valley is the role that observer category membership plays. I suspect that the sensitivity of an observer to particular perceptual tension, and the nature of the behavioral response exhibited, may depend in part on whether the target perception is a category the observer considers themself to be a member of. This would explain why the effect seems more pronounced when the target perception is ‘human’. It may be that the individual observer sensitivity Moore discusses is generally higher when the cue conflicts force introspection into why the observer themself is a member of the target category, which could result in feelings of insecurity as cues previously assumed to be sufficient for determining category membership need to be reconsidered. It may also be relevant whether the observer considers themself to be a core member of the target category, or on the fringe—or alternatively, a member of the background category.
Now, let us consider cryonics. Might the uncanny valley theory shed some light onto why cryonics has such a difficult time garnering public and mainstream scientific support? I think it can. Mike Darwin has written about the conflict between cryonicists and cryobiologists, pointing out that there was not always a “war” between them, and that “[s]everal cryobiologists who later became some of the most vocal critics of cryonics were not only not hostile, but actually demonstrated interest in and support of cryonics; particularly with an eye towards getting money to pursue cryobiological research.” Several cryobiologists sat on the Science Advisory Council to the Cryonics Societies of America in those early years, and Arthur Rowe, who went on to become a prominent anti-cryonics cryobiologist, at one time even wished Robert Ettinger “continued success in [his] endeavors”, was consulted for his expertise in an early cryonics case… and obliged! Though the collapse of the Cryonics Society of California and tragic loss of the patients at Chatsworth no doubt contributed to rising anti-cryonics sentiment, it is interesting that the move to ban cryonicists from entry to the Society for Cryobiology appeared to occur in reaction to close exposure to “medicalized” cryonics in an impromptu presentation by Darwin at the Society’s meeting in 1981.
This negative reaction by cryobiologists to the arrival of cryonics as a serious scientific endeavor can be explained using the uncanny valley theory. The target category here is clear enough—cryonics aspires to be recognized as a medical procedure. But what is the background category causing perceptual tension? One option is quackery, and certainly many public comments from scientists superficially seem to support this. However, remembering back to Moore’s explanation of the uncanny valley, perceptual tension arises from conflicting cues to category membership near the boundary between categories with low overlap, whereas quackery and actual medicine share many perceptual cues in common (if they didn’t, the snake oil wouldn’t get sold). So while we might not expect scientists to provide ringing endorsements of a practice they perceived to sit near the boundary between quackery and medical procedure, we also would not expect a previously neutral (and in some instances positive) response to shift sharply into the negative as a result of that same practice transitioning towards operating on a more rigorously scientific basis.
I believe the background category causing the trouble is ritual burial practice. The tip-off is that the regulators that anti-cryonics agitators invariably prod to clamp down on “cadaver freezing” are state funeral boards—even though the supposed cause for governmental intervention is that “it won’t work,” a standard which would never be applied to beliefs associated with other burial practices. This approach is illogical: a better strategy against cryonics would be to push for its regulation within the medical establishment, and in particular any devices which fall under FDA’s authority over “medical devices.” This strategy would require cryonics to prove its efficacy, which of course, by presently accepted definitions, cannot be done. Instead, cryonics is shoved in the direction of regulators responsible for burial practices and other modes of disposition of human remains, where, of all places, it might actually have a chance of being protected on the basis of the practitioners’ beliefs. It is telling, too, how often negative responses by scientists to cryonics will ignore or distort well-established science, often from their own field. To me, this all points to the irrational/emotional nature of these responses—many of these researchers no doubt consider themselves members of the extended medical community, and are trying to put distance between themselves and something that looks like them and talks like them, but is nevertheless decidedly not them. Without necessarily realizing it, their instinctive reaction is to push cryonics back towards the background category causing the perceptual conflict.
Ritual burial practice and medical technology are far more dissimilar from each other than medicine and quackery, and thus Moore’s model would predict any cue conflict near the class boundary to cause perceptual tension. Here, cryonics is the perfect storm of conflicting cues: it is a procedure performed after the person is already declared dead, that looks at first like attempts to resuscitate, followed by surgery (possibly involving decapitation) and then preservation, with the ultimate objective of continued life in an as-yet-unknown form, on the basis of a theory that can never be absolutely disproven… so long as the person’s remains are left undisturbed. These perceptual cues are a complete and utter jumble, pointing 100% in both directions at the juncture of life and death.
And if that all weren’t confusing enough, what role might the category of ‘scientific research’ have in this? We utilize anatomical gift legislation to effect transfer of the body for the purpose of research, but then refer to our specimens as “patients” and wait for other research to produce the evidence and technology in order for this research to become a medical procedure. In my opinion, the ‘scientific research’ label is a red herring—it has obvious utility for us, but it is a loose foothold in the uncanny valley, given how candid we are about our objectives.
So, will any amount of R&D short of actually resuscitating someone increase our public approval, or will it just heighten perceptual tension and plunge us further into the valley? Moore’s model tells us that individual sensitivity to perceptual tension isn’t something we can directly control for, other than perhaps through desensitization, but that is hard to accomplish with a movement so small. Also, some of the conflicting perceptual cues are not ones we can change. If our objectives sound quasireligious to others, we can try to explain how we reject the ordinary definition(s) of death while still being rational people—but if they are not persuaded, there’s not much else we can do other than keep building up our evidence, brick by brick. However, we may be able to reduce cue conflict on other dimensions. We can accomplish this by continuing to emulate medicine in more positive ways, and also by de-emphasizing cues that pull the other direction (i.e. the trend away from the word “immortality” is a good one, at least for the public acceptance of cryonics).
The current legal definition of death is a source of perceptual conflict that we may not be able to do much about just yet, but in the interim, we can at least try to minimize its apparent importance to the procedure. Reliance on life insurance to fund cryonics arrangements seems to pull in the wrong direction, as we are opportunistically capitalizing on a definition of death we fundamentally disagree with, in order to afford an opportunity to disprove it— to our benefit. Of course, for many life insurance is the only real means of access available to them, but perhaps down the road, we could negotiate or design a new form of insurance specific to cryonics, formally triggered not by the patient’s legal death, but initiation of cryonics procedures. This is really just a rose by another name, but it would also finally put to rest that old worry that the insurers will come back for their money if the patient is resuscitated.
A feature of mainstream medicine which is conspicuously underdeveloped in cryonics are surrogate decision makers for patients post-cryopreservation. As it stands currently, cryonics organizations have complete or near-complete authority over their charges, and while this is for the good purpose of preventing interference by third parties, it does give the appearance that the patients are essentially the property of the care provider. Given the potential time frames we are looking at, recognizing something like a power of attorney for health care, in cryonics care, still might not stretch far enough, unless it contained a power to delegate the authority further, or was vested in a trusted organization instead of an individual. Due to the legal status of the patients, the cryonics organizations would have a lot of latitude in designing what exactly their obligations were to the patient’s representatives, postcryopreservation, keeping in mind the precarious and high stakes nature of the cryonics venture. However, one scenario which should be seriously considered, is under what circumstances a surrogate decision maker (or self-regulatory body, see below) could insist that the patient be moved.
Another aspect of medical practice which cryonics can and probably should emulate sooner or later is self-regulation. Mainstream medicine is of course regulated through a mix of government and professional self-regulation, and the cryonics organizations’ proactively developing shared standards and oversight mechanisms will give the public confidence that whatever the patients’ status is in law, they are being treated with due care and respect. In the same vein, self-regulation may help ward off the risk of inappropriate government regulation down the road.
These are only a few ideas of how to keep non-research, non-technical dimensions of cryonics progressing smoothly toward recognized medical practice, mitigating as much as possible any perceptual tension with the background category of ritual burials.
If the uncanny valley theory holds true, there’s a high mountain of public acceptance on the other side waiting. The question is, have we already reached the bottom?
: Masahiro Mori, “The Uncanny Valley”, 7 Energy 4 (1970) 33-35. Available online (English): http://spectrum.ieee. org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/ the-uncanny-valley
: Shawn A Steckenfinger & Asif A Ghazanfar, “Monkey visual behavior falls into the uncanny valley” 106 PNAS 43 (2009) 18362-18366. Available online: http://www.pnas.org/ content/106/43/18362.full
: Roger K Moore, “A Bayesian explanation of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ effect and related psychological phenomena”. Scientific Reports 2, Article 864. Published online, November 16, 2012: http:// www.nature.com/srep/2012/121115/ srep00864/full/srep00864.html
: Mike Darwin, “Cold War: The Conflict Between Cryonicists and Cryobiologists”. Cryonics, June, July, August 1991. Available online: http://www.alcor.org/Library/ html/coldwar.html
First published as a regular column called In Perpetuity in Cryonics Magazine, June 2013.