Uncanny Valley

What is an emotional exchange? Is it the sender’s affect in the presence of a receiver? Or is it the receiver’s perception of affect irrespective of how genuine the sender’s feeling?

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Julian, with his new arm, inspects an earlier generation of humanoid. Mary Price Moore and Evan Kokkila Schumacher.

When neurological scientist Claire asks humanoid Julian to list some musical instruments, he quickly responds and includes the glockenspiel among three common ones. While Claire notes that glockenspiel is a correct answer, she informs him that it is not a representative one. And this nuance symbolizes the divide between a fully realized human-like creation and one that induces dissonance in the mind of the observer.

The term “uncanny valley” refers to a scientific hypothesis which states that people respond increasingly favorably to increasingly realistic representations of humans. But at some threshold of realism – think of zombies or corpses – appreciation turns to revulsion. Finally, as the character becomes convincingly humanlike, favorability returns.

Approaching retirement from a career of working on the artificial intelligence component of humanoids, Claire addresses one last task. She is adding the final programming touches to Julian so that “he” overcomes the revulsion provoking stage and achieves humanlikeness. Mary Price Moore finds the sweet spot in her portrayal of Claire with equal parts clinical scientist and mother/creator, displaying a smiling countenance that reflects quiet confidence and compassion.

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Julian stumbles. Claire winces. Evan Kokkila Schumacher and Mary Price Moore.

Since much of Claire’s professional life has been dedicated to creating humanoids and talking with them to smooth out wrinkles in their behaviors, it is understandable that she might acquire the attitudes of a mother figure. Julian senses this and engages her in the topic of giving birth to a baby and how it compares to giving birth to a form with more mature characteristics. But beyond birthing, Claire nurtures Julian. And like a mother isolated with an infant for much of the day, her sensibilities must be highly colored by that single relationship, even if the association is with a non-human.

As an emphatic reminder that Julian is not real, we first see him before he has received his appendages, with his upright head and torso resting atop a lab table. He is learning that even though his eyes are not dry, he must blink at irregular intervals, and that his facial features must respond in a certain sequence to indicate pleasure in greeting someone. He also understands the implications of lacking the senses of taste, smell, and feel.

Claire’s efforts have focused on these tactical, interpersonal issues of creating synthetic life forms. She excelled in her niche, and while behavioral characteristics of humanoids are interesting and important, they pale in comparison to the implications of creating surrogate life. Legal and moral issues abound. As a foreshadow of the possibilities, consider that in this country corporations have rights normally reserved to sentient beings, and in some jurisdictions, animals do as well. And what about clones?

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Claire demonstrates compassion for Julian, an inanimate object. Evan Kokkila Schumacher and Mary Price Moore.

Evan Kokkila Schumacher plays Julian, a humanoid designed and programmed to be a male in his mid thirties. Schumacher is masterful in his depiction of his character’s rough edges and his learning curve toward refinement. He is convincing as he becomes more assertive – cajoling and challenging Claire.

At a conceptual level, the script is full of discussions about understanding soul, consciousness, and existence. At a storyline level, Julian, as a highly advanced humanoid form, possesses characteristics that trigger intriguing incidents of great complexity. When Claire begins to grasp the costs of realizing science’s potential, Julian sneers, “You spent your life gazing across the valley. You had to know that one day someone would look back.”

To disclose anything more would give away too much of the dramatic power of the play. Suffice it to say that “Uncanny Valley” is a thoughtful, provocative play executed in a highly engaging manner by director Caroline Clark and her creative team. It’s a very worthwhile evening of “entertainment.”

Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons is produced by Pear Theatre and plays at its stage at 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View, through February 12, 2017.

 

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