ByDavid Latchman, writer at
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David Latchman

Recent movies like Ex Machina have examined the implications of what happens when machines exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to humans. Last year’s Uncanny is no different. In fact, many of the plot points are the same: Brilliant scientist develops the perfect AI and invites an expert to test his creation. It is at this point the two film’s deviate. Instead of the horrible killer robot we are all used to watching on dystopian sci-fi, we get something different and though-provoking with Uncanny when a brilliant scientist tests the ultimate Turing Test, and a strange love triangle develops.

The Uncanny Valley

The movie begins when the two protagonists play a game of chess. It is here we gain some insight into the relationship between the creator and the created; David Kressen (Mark Webber) plays the brilliant scientist who is somewhat abusive to his creation Adam (David Clayton Rogers). The goal for David and his benefactor, Simon Castle (Rainn Wilson), is to test his creation by allowing tech reporter and robotics expert Joy Andrews (Lucy Griffiths) exclusive access to do a series of interviews about him and his creation over the course of a week.

Hypothesized emotional response plotted against anthropomorphism of a robot.
Hypothesized emotional response plotted against anthropomorphism of a robot.

The movie’s title is derived from the “uncanny valley,” a term derived from the field of aesthetics that hypothesizes that when a robot’s features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural humans, it causes a sense of revulsion among observers. The “valley” refers to the dip in a graph of the comfort level as a robot becomes more realistic looking.

The term was first coined by famed Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who is mentioned in the show and has several implications, not just in the field of robotics but in movies and computer games. The 2001 film “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” and the 2004 film, “The Polar Express,” both received negative reactions from audiences due to a near-realistic but imperfect depictions of human characters.

We see this effect at play when Joy first meets David’s assistant, Adam, or rather the film’s writers would like us to think. Though also remarkably intelligent, there is something different about Adam. Joy initially assumes that Adam is an autistic savant but when challenged by David, she kicks herself for not realizing what Adam truly is, the world’s first perfect AI. David’s vision is to have his creations living alongside us and interacting on a daily basis in the same way a normal human would. Initially uninterested in David’s work, she is intrigued by Adam and agrees to spend the week learning more about David’s work and Adam’s creation.

Initially turned off by David’s arrogance and sometimes condescension, Joy finds herself attracted to the young genius and David and Joy get closer. This leads to some unexpected and emergent behavior from Adam that could not be programmed – jealousy. Though somewhat disturbed by this unexpected love triangle, both David and Joy are excited by the implications of this development. Joy now has something amazing to write for her article.

The Illusion of Being Human

Though the movie moves at a very slow pace, the acting is well performed/delivered and the plot is very nuanced. If you do not pay close attention to what the various characters say, you can miss the subtle clues that imply that neither David nor Adam are who they say they are. Unlike “Ex Machina”, where all the thought-provoking bits are literally spelled out and spoon-fed to its viewers, “Uncanny” takes a far more subtle route when it comes to the nature of both David and Adam. What is clear is that Joy is the participant of an experiment rather than the observer and reporter of one.

Simon Castle looks on but what is the experiment?
Simon Castle looks on but what is the experiment?

Given David’s goal of creating a robot that will be able to live independently among humans without the need to compete, the perfect AI must be indistinguishable from humans. In doing so, David seeks to create the most finely crafted illusion that passes the Turing Test, the test first devised by one of the world’s greatest mathematicians, Alan Turing, on whether a machine could exhibit humanlike intelligence. There are several scenes where Simon is seen observing the trio. Is he monitoring the experiment, or something else? Perhaps he is looking to see how Joy reacts to both David and Adam making her part of the experiment.

As with all good things, there must be an end, but nothing about the film is what it seems. You especially need to pay attention to what both David and Adam say to understand the show’s meaning. This, coupled by the show’s slow pace, means this is not everyone’s cup of tea but is certainly a rewarding view for those willing to take the time to do so. While it is no Ex Machina, it brings up some of the same questions that unbridled experiments in machine cognition raises on a much deeper level, so is certainly worth a watch.


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