The release of Blade Runner 2049 has once again inspired us to imagine what it would be like if the distinction between artificial life and humans all but disappeared. Once something else is almost as ‘real’ as us, the idea of what it means to be human is challenged.
Neuroscientists know already that such a scenario is disturbing to us – thanks to a phenomenon known as Uncanny Valley. In the experiment, when people were faced with robots that looked very robotic (think flashing lights and metal), their response was fine. But the more human the robot became, the stronger their antipathy, discomfort and even revulsion – and the spookier it seemed.
In studies we measure the degree to which anything is human in terms of how it looks, how it moves and how it responds. In all cases the more artificial anything seems, the more easily we cope. Of course, once the difference between us and artificial life is undetectable, our response is exactly the same. At which point, the tables will turn – an enduring theme in Blade Runner – and it will be the robots who struggle with the idea of who they are and what it means to be human.
Dr. Daniel Glaser is director of Science Gallery at King’s College London