A spiritual question lies at the core of many science fiction stories: What makes us human? There are countless explorations of the line between humans and machines in popular culture, from the newly remade TV show Battlestar Galactica to the film Wall-E. Nan Runde writes for Parabola (excerpt only available online), “the popularity of cyborg stories reveals a deep undercurrent of ambivalence and anxiety about the presence of machines in our lives.”
The fight between humans and machines often represents the tension between assimilation and individualism, according to Runde. Machines embody a hive mentality, where the spirit is reduced to just another cog in the machinery. The struggle against that mentality is akin to the fight for free will, and humans often represent both the heroes and the enemies in the battle. “Though human beings are the ones who make machines,” Runde writes, “our technology is undeniably changing us as well.”
This tension also manifests itself in the revulsion people feel toward some real-life objects. Writing for Search Magazine, Sam Kean explores the phenomenon of the “uncanny valley,” a theory stating that objects and robots get creepy when they look too much like humans. A talking cartoon dog, for example, is cute, but a zombie is disturbing. A chart (below) shows the progression: Objects become more familiar as they look more like humans, until they reach a certain point when they just get creepy.
It may be possible to solve the problem of the uncanny valley, according to Kean, further blurring the line between humans and machines. That could have serious implications, especially considering the amount of time people already spend with computers. Before that happens, Kean writes that exploring that line between humans and machines, and our opposing feelings of revulsion and familiarity, could give valuable insights into what it means to be human.
Jason Kottke has more on the uncanny valley on his blog.