Uncomfortably Close to Human: Robots and the Neocolonial Politics of Care

Shelley Park

As part of a larger project on the ethics of technologically mediated care, the workshop paper I propose explores how we are “unhomed” by robots, or what Atanosaski and Vora (2019) aptly term “surrogate humanity.”

Robots are no longer merely features of our industrial or technological habitats, but are rapidly penetrating our social sphere. Unlike industrial robots, the capabilities of social robots depend on the human capacity to anthropomorphize them (Turkle 2011). Social robots cannot function as playmates to children, helpers to the elderly, or companions to those who are because of age, health or circumstance, physically vulnerable or socially isolated, unless we are willing to accept them as socially capable. This makes what Masahiro Mori (1970), termed “the uncanny valley” a major barrier to the mass marketing of socially interactive robots.
The uncanny valley, as described in Mori’s original article, was a hypothesis concerning negative human reactions to human replicas (e.g. lifelike puppets or robots) which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings. While we might expect our affinity for the replica to steadily increase as the replica becomes more familiar, Mori hypothesized that when a replica got too close—we might say uncomfortably close—to approximating human features it would elicit feelings of eeriness (uncanniness) in human observers. The phenomenon of human repulsion at robots that closely approximate human appearance while retaining some slightly inhuman element has dominated both scientific research on and cultural depictions of social robots. Horror films as well as dystopian science fiction deliberately elicit our sense of the uncanny to creep us out; robot engineers seek ways to avoid or suppress our sense of the uncanny.

I propose that the uncanny valley is misunderstood as an engineering problem amenable to technological solutions. Employing psychoanalytic feminism (e.g. Kristeva, Butler) and psychoanalytic analyses of the colonial encounter (e.g. Fanon, Bhabha), I suggest that we are unsettled (“unhomed”) by social robots that mimic humans because we sense a past that we believed was safely stowed away (one characterized by servitude and slavery) re-emerging into our present. To make this argument, I hope to develop close readings of two narratives: 1) the marketing narrative framing Franhauer’s (German) Care-o-Bot and 2) narratives of consumer desires for “synths” that arose during the marketing of the British/U.S. science fiction series HUMANS (2015-18).

Through feminist decolonial psychoanalytic readings of these (and perhaps other) narratives, I hope to show that uncanniness as an affective response can’t be separated from the social, cultural and historical contexts in which it emerges. Thus the problem of the uncanny valley is best understood as a socio-cultural problem requiring ethico-political (rather than technological) solutions.


Atanasoski, Neda, and Kalindi Vora. 2019. Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures. Durham: Duke University Press Books.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. London ; New York : Routledge, 1994.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Thinking Gender. New York : Routledge, 1990.

Fanon, Frantz. 1968. Black Skin, White Masks. Evergreen Black Cat Book. New York: Grove Press.

Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. Reprint edition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mori, Masahiro. 2012 [1970]. “The Uncanny Valley.” Translated by Norri Kageki. IEEE Robotics Automation Magazine 19 (2): 98–100. https://doi.org/10.1109/MRA.2012.2192811.

Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York, NY, US: Basic Books.

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