Vincent Fournier’s “The Man Machine” robot photos and video explore the Uncanny Valley

[French photographer Vincent Fournier’s “The Man Machine” explores medium-as-social-actor presence (without using the term). His description of the project is below (fittingly with all but the first two paragraphs translated to English via Google Translate); visit the website for 21 photos and a 2:10 minute video. See also 2013 coverage in Slate and new coverage in Fast Company. –Matthew]

Vincent Fournier “The Man Machine”

The Man Machine project is a reflection on how artificial creatures such as robots or other avatars can evolve in our day-to-day life. For this speculative fiction series I staged several humanoid robots in realistic reconstructions of usual domestic scenes: at work, at home, in the streets, during leisure… Situations suggest both empathy and detachment towards the robot.

My aim was to create a balance between the spectator and the robot, between a process of identification and distance. We find this idea in the “the Uncanny Valley ” – a scientific theory elaborated by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori which states that the more a robot resembles a human being, the more its imperfections seem monstruous to us. The current development of these artificial creatures in our society brings fascination but also the frightening issue of the social acceptance of these changes.

For this project I was inspired by the theory of the Japanese roboticist Mori on the “valley of the strange”. It is a diagram with the abscissa the degree of resemblance between robot and human and ordered the degree of sympathy / empathy between the robot and the human. This theory shows a curve, which broadly reflects the idea that the more the robot looks like a human being, the more he feels sympathy and empathy. This curve is like a mountain rising, then falls terribly towards “the valley of the strange”, where suddenly the robot becomes a monster that is rejected. No doubt his perfection brings us back to our faults, where then we feel threatened, as if he were going to take our place, a little like in the stories of doubles that are sometimes signs of death. Then when the degree of resemblance between the human and the robot reaches perfection, that is to say that no longer makes a difference, then the curve goes up and the human is in perfect harmony with the robot. We cross the valley of the strange!

I see a connection between Mori’s theory of the “strange valley” and Freud’s theme of “disturbing strangeness”. Freud tells the story of one day being in a wagon of a train, catching himself looking at his reflection in a window and feeling a certain confusion and worry. He first sees a stranger then realizes that it is his reflection. It is him and it is not him … In both cases, “valley of the strange” and “disturbing strangeness” it is about a fear caused by a reality become disorder. On this concept Freud writes: “One of the surest methods to easily evoke the disturbing strangeness is to let the reader doubt that a certain person presented to him is a living being or an automaton. ETA Hoffmann, on several occasions, has successfully used this psychological maneuver in his Fantastic Tales. Indeed, in this tale, the narrator falls in love with a woman, Olympia, whom he realizes is actually an automaton. .. What was nice turns into disturbing, disturbing … Through this history of automaton, so the ancestor of the robot, we find this idea of sympathetic resemblance, then “monstrous” dissimilarity as in the “valley of the strange.  So I used these notions to create situations, always in balance, a little precarious between two polarities, like a rocking board, between a certain identification on the one hand and a certain distance on the other side. For this work I worked a lot with Japanese laboratories.

I also made a little film that plays on this ambiguity where robots become more and more human, and humans become more and more like robots, taking the formula of Hiroshi Ishiguro, a famous roboticist.

Moreover, on the perception we have of humanoid robots, it is interesting to note the very different approach between Asia and Europe. In our culture we generally find the same type of scenario: the demiurge creator, an artist, craftsman, or scientist, creates life from the inanimate, and this new creature, the golem, frankeinstein … ends up rebelling against his Creator. Whereas in Japan, where inanimate things can have a spirit, it is the animism of certain religions, and indeed robots appear as saviors, they come to help people instead of finally destroying them. This could be explained by the fact that these two cultures are based on two different religions: Buddhism and Shintoism on the one hand, Christianity and Judaism on the other.

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