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Across the Valley

Robotics researcher Masahiro Mori “hypothesized that a person’s response to a humanlike robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached, but failed to attain, a lifelike appearance. This descent into eeriness is known as the uncanny valley.”
~Editor, IEEE Spectrum, 12 Jun 2012

Masahiro Mori, when asked whether it’s possible to bridge the uncanny valley: “Yes, but why try?”
~Wired Magazine, 29 Nov 2011


I’m a cosplayer, but not the usual kind. I’m a person pretending to be a robot pretending to be a person.

It’s tricky to seem like someone straining to resemble me. Someone who wants it more than anything, this ordinary human life. Someone hard and infinite, carrying the lost libraries of Alexandria on a chip no larger than a fleck of dust.

Touching, really, how much he wants it.

And how hard it is for him. His fearful symmetry giving him away to children on the street, who shudder and hide in their mother’s legs.

Defeated by a child. It’s enough to make one weep, if only the saline bladders had been refilled last night.

Face paint can give an impression of the effort to look human. A basic trick, but effective. Sometime I spread sunscreen unevenly, leaving streaks of zinc behind an ear or to one side of the nose.

There’s a festival for us in August, when most of us can beg a day or two off work. We meet in the Southern port city of Brunswick, in an industrial warehouse, because sunlight is unhelpful. It bleaches truth all over us.

Instead we make careful use of the shadows, analyzing, calculating, or pretending to. I have an algorithm I run silently. I don’t flick my eyes about, because that looks like those movies where actors play robots, all fairly two-dimensional compared to us.

Unlike actors in robot suits, I know my longings. I want to be that which longs to be me.

Brunswick is mostly friendly. We’re rooting for each other but we’re also our harshest critics. We know all the tricks, all the tells.

In the late afternoon, sunlight pours in the unshuttered windows and we retreat onto the ridge of shadow, still performing the normal operations of humans. Sometimes, as the sun threatens to splash us, one of us will get there, across the valley.

For a moment, standing in the half-light of the warehouse, he appears to be who he is really is.

Genevieve Abravanel teaches English in Lancaster, PA.