It's a Robot, Baby

Joe Lucchesi

Like a lot of folks, I’ve been thinking about love in the time of robots lately. A recent viral video of a smiling electronic baby happily squirming in its UCSD Machine Perception crib really sent me over the edge, plunging into the uncanny valley. Looking at something close - its nubby teeth and charmingly squinty expressions, but not close enough - its rubbery skin jaggedly meeting its acrylic blue skull, produced a visceral sense of existential angst that took me by surprise.

Could this almost-baby potentially be my technological successor, my reaction already intuiting my own technological insufficiency? Maybe. Could it also be that the video is yet another irresistible metaphor of machinery mediating any and all intimate relationships? But this is a social media fact that projected our love lives into the digital realm back in the internet equivalent of the stone age.

Or perhaps my response was a jarring realization that our robot overlords have arrived, and unlike what pop culture has led us to believe, it wasn’t in the form of an inexorable army of powerful replicants, or deceptively charming and attractive lackeys lulling us into a false sense of pampered security, or even the friendly neighborhood drone delivering my mail. It arrived in the form of a gurgling, happy baby making cute for my benefit. Some aspect of all these notions fed my momentary vertigo on the edge of the technological ravine, but mostly I think I reacted from a sense of self-betrayal - the robot baby caught me off guard because this already exists. It might be too late, and I hadn’t even noticed.

Programmed using newly-available big data drawn from studies of infant responses by developmental psychologists, one of my more sobering thoughts in staring down that video was that our physiological human reactions had been recorded, translated, crunched, freely exchanged and turned into a simulated replica of ourselves, programmed into a silicone equivalent whose goal is then to teach us about developing human interactivity and emotion. The breathtakingly efficient inversion of that exchange is what worries me now, as though we’ve already ceded the territory of invisible human connection to its quantified doppelganger. This feels like one more step to making technological conquest both plausible and palatable.

Human relationships mediated by technology are nothing new, only taking new forms appropriate to the age. The camera, the telegraph, and the telephone all opened up new possibilities for connectivity across time and space even as they subtly initiated an easily-ignored gap in which we’re dealing with disembodied versions of each other, negotiated across this divide. And that’s only in recent history. As that video suggests, some folks think of the uncanny valley as only a warning of an unsolved problem. But others see this sense of uneasiness when confronted with our almost-selves differently, as a prompt to think about the human within that gap. 

So maybe I should thank the robot baby for its charming and off-putting chubby grins, its inability to perfectly simulate human behavior and - in turn apparently - teach us about our own development.

Our human relationship to the natural world can’t be far behind in all this unsettled estrangement, and of course is already here. Server farms succeed the agri-business conglomerate that itself replaced the family farm in the vast plains of American productivity, producing a new crop we increasingly rely on for sustenance.

The question then becomes: can we live on data alone across the rolling hills of the fertile uncanny valley? We can’t, but robot babies do.