John Lennon Monsters in the Uncanny Valley

Uncanny valley IWriters at this site have discussed the “Uncanny Valley” before. Put simply, it's that point along the curve from “clearly artificial” to “almost lifelike” at which most people get … well, creeped out.

While the term is new (a Japanese roboticist coined it in 1970), the idea may be as old as myth: Ugly things – things that look very different from us – are repulsive. But so are things that look almost like us – or things that could be us, but aren't.

Isn't that why vampires fascinate us? “I thought she or he was safe, trustworthy, one of us … until I saw no reflection in the mirror …”

No reflection in the mirror = no confirmation of humanity, either theirs or ours. If they don't cast a reflection than they don't reflect us.

So a monster that's human-like is scary for different reasons than an obviously grotesque one. In the dark that face seemed almost human. But when I turned on the light …

Anybody want to insert a Joan Rivers joke here? Go right ahead. Plastic surgery falls into the Uncanny Valley sometimes. We allowed ourselves to adjust as famous people gradually began reconstructing themselves more and more.

Imagine if someone with a heavily reconstructed face – Michael Jackson, let's say – were sent back in time 100 years. It wouldn't be a joke. People would run away in horror.

Monster: From the root of the Latin monere, to warn – as of something terrible or portentous.” That's what the Encyclopedia Britannica says.

Actroid“Monster … not one with the blowing clover or the falling rain.” That's what Ralph Waldo Emerson says.

So let's call Uncanny Valley monstrosity a warning: That thing you thought might be human … isn't.

And what does John Lennon have to do with all of this? Surprisingly, nobody's built any animatronic Beatles yet. I have seen Beatles cover bands in about five different countries, including Japan, Portugal, and India. Moptops, collarless suits, bobbing heads … the whole deal. But, while the late Mr. Lennon has escaped robotic reproduction (which could leave him looking like the overly humanized “actroid” on the right), he lives on in at least two back roads of the Uncanny Valley.

The best-known of these is the video released in 2008 where an actor imitates Lennon's voice and endorses a charity called “One Laptop For Every Child.” At the end of the video, which is called “A Message From John Lennon,” an attempt is made to sync video of Lennon with the actor's voice so that a living John is endorsing the charity.

The video created a small firestorm among Lennon fans, some of whom were mightily ticked off that Lennon's image had been used in this way. While the charity's cause itself is debatable (do hungry children really need to rest their gaunt fingers on a keyboard?), that wasn't the cause of the fans' anger. Rather, it seemed to be the appropriation of Lennon's identity – his humanness – that got them upset.

Was this an Uncanny Valley problem? Most Lennon fans seem very fond of Yoko, who endorsed this video. If Yoko had painted a picture showing John saying “One Laptop For Every Child,” it's hard to believe anyone would have objected. Instead we got this ad. The voice, while far from a perfect imitation, certainly resembled his. And the “uncanny” effect was only heightened by the fact that this “living Lennon” spoke about himself in the past tense: “(Children) would have a chance to learn, to dream, to achieve anything they want. I tried to do it through my music, but now you can do it in a very different way.”

So, while the Uncanny Valley is usually described as a visual phenomenon, this feels like an associative, emotional, and memory-based example. Somebody we remember, respect, and feel that we know is being replicated. And some people find it disturbing.

Something about John Lennon seems to attract this sort of thing. A while back I wrote about an “AI” program that purported to replicate Lennon's personality so that you could “talk” with the dead musician. As someone who usually has an Uncanny Valley reaction to programmed personalities, I found this work to be both annoying and sadly lacking in “Turing” testability (I have my doubts about the Turing Test, anyway.) The fact that it periodically interrupted the “conversation” to advertise products didn't help:

> RE: What do you think about 9/11?

“Lennon”: Do you want to know about 9/11?

> RE: Yeah. What about 9/11?

“Lennon”: 9/11 ? What does 9/11 have to do with this peace campaign?

>RE: Forget it. Which of your electric guitars was your favorite?

“Lennon”: Where are you?

> RE: What does that have to do with which electric guitar’s your favorite?

“Lennon”: That have to do with which electric guitars myfavorite ? Depends on who’s paying.

> RE: Personally I liked that Les Paul Junior singly cutaway you were using around the time of the ‘One on One’ concert.

“Lennon”: How did you hear about the John Lennon Artificial Intelligence Project?

> RE: I have a newsbot that tells me whenever there’s a story on the net about artificial intelligence.

“Lennon”: Where did you get it?

> RE: Online.

“Lennon”: [[advertising link]] We thought we’d plug that a bit.

> RE: Back to the guitars. A lot of people like that Les Paul Junior. They were cheap back then but they’re collectors items now.

“Lennon”: If I feel like cutting it, I’ll cut it.

> RE: I can’t afford one, or I’d buy one myself.

“Lennon”: Oh really?

> Q: Yeah. Maybe you’ll give me a good price for yours.

“Lennon”: (German accent) [[insert advertising link]] …This is WFBI, playing all your favourite tunes.


OK. So this “AI” is not likely to write the next “In My Life” anytime soon. John Lennon's gone (and here are 26 things I miss about him). Still, while I'll always cut Yoko a lot of slack in these things (it's her family and not mine), I find the instinctive recoil in myself and others interesting. These imperfect recreations … they're revenants, aren't they? They're vampire-like. And aren't they Lennon as “monster,” Lennon as a creature who is “not one with the blowing clover or the falling rain”?

Or maybe these resurrected Lennons are”monster” in that other meaning, from the Latin root monere. That would mean they aren't revenants, or robots, or refugees from the Uncanny Valley. That would make them each a warning – of more valleys to come, of more exploitations, of more blurring of the distinctions between living and dead, human and inhuman. Maybe these Lennons carry that message everybody watching a horror movie fears the most:

You're next.