Review: Uncanny Valley (Battersea Arts Centre)

By Theo Moore

24.02.2022 /

The idea of the uncanny valley was first introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, writing in the 1970s: 'I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the uncanny valley.'


The expected response to advanced robots becoming more and more human-like, is an increasing level of affinity to these machines. Mori proposed that actually there is a point when an artificial replica begins to look too realistic; in his example of a lifelike prosthetic hand he argues that 'when we realise the hand, which at first sight looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation.' The hand dips into the uncanny valley.


This is Rimini Protokoll Company's UK premiere of Uncanny Valley. A one-man, autobiographical monologue by the German writer Thomas Melle. Except, it's not Thomas Melle. The speech is delivered by an eerily life-like, robotic replica of the author, who sits in a chair, one leg delicately crossed over the other, with a glass of water on the table next to him. His body is filled out like a Guy Fawkes, slightly too square, slightly not human; but his face, from a distance, could easily be considered the real thing - if it weren't for the mass of wires that protrude from the huge hole in the back of his head.


The story that Melle, or Melle 2 as director Stefan Kaegi affectionately dubs him, tells is a moving response to Melle's experience of his bipolar disorder. After writing his autobiography, Melle struggled with the subsequent string of interviews, the necessity to constantly go over his illness in order to sell his book was not a pleasant experience. Now, he has a robot that can do it for him. One that cannot feel vulnerable, that cannot feel nervous, but, as Melle 2 proved, can still elicit an emotional reaction from its audience.


Uncanny Valley is a fascinating show, and it is always special to see something in a theatre unlike anything you've ever seen. It raises a plethora of questions about humanity, about our relationship to robots, about our reliance on algorithms and technology. Ultimately, it is Melle's story that endears his robot equivalent to us, yet there are moments when I listen to Melle's voice, that emanates from his robotic doppelgänger, and look into the dark eyes of his double, that I feel a shiver go down my arms. The water on the table next to him is a lovely touch. Of course he can't drink it, water and wires are not a good match, and even if they were this version of Melle is incapable of thirst - but even so, there is a glass of water; a humorous suggestion at his potential for humanity.


The robot questions us too, instructing us to close our eyes and think of our first memories - how many of these are real? How many of them are photos, or videos from a camera lens that we've since reformatted as images stemming from our minds eye? How much of our lives now reside in digital spaces anyway? We are motivated to question our already symbiotic relationship with tech: haven't we all felt a certain 'phantom pain' when we forget to take our phones out with us, as if we've lost an additional limb?


Whilst the entire show can run, from start to finish, at the press of a button - with every action, interaction, lighting change, and projection programmed to run without a hitch - Melle 2 makes us wonder whether we are all programmed: robots by technicians, humans by social convention. Sure, you might say, we have the freedom to burst out of our programming at any time, to behave in random, unpredictable ways, to quit our jobs, travel the world, experience life as a real thing - but how many of us do it? As the lights go down, we applaud - we clap for a writer who isn't there, for a director in a different country, for a robot that can't appreciate it, but it is expected of us, and so we do it.


Uncanny Valley