Deep Fakes in the Uncanny Valley

How fun to watch deep fakes of old favorite movies! Here is one with the classic 80’s action flick muscle stars Sylvester Stallone’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s faces projected on main characters Dale and Brennan in Step Brothers. It’s cute, Sly and Arnold used to be competitors in the box office back in the day, but in later years worked together in movies like The Expendables and Escape Plan. Much like John C Reilly’s and Will Ferrell’s characters in Step Brothers went from adversaries to best friends.

Deep fakes raise many questions, what can we trust in the online world? What if your face appeared in a video, saying something you would never? Who do you push back on something like that? The Step Brothers deep fake probably won’t fool anyone – the movie is familiar, the actors well-known and in any case there is something weird about the faces. Or is there?

Robot designers and video game makers struggle with a problem called the “Uncanny Valley” – it is possible to make a robot or a game character that looks perfectly realistic like a human being. But when it starts moving and talking, it feels weird. The facial expressions are off, or the timing, or something else – could be difficult to put one’s finger on it. It is possible to fool the eye but not the brain. The effect, the gap between expectation and behaviour, is unpleasant, or uncanny. The design is right on the edge of the uncanny valley. The jump to the other side, where the impression matches the visuals in harmony, is not a gradual improvement but a single big leap that no one has made (yet).

Robot designers tend to avoid the uncanny valley by making robots that look nothing like humans. Video game artists often aim for photo-realistic visuals but avoid going to close to the valley’s edge. Conceptual art, however, might seek out the effect, making a point of the uncanny (such as this video by Swedish artist Tove Kjellmark [sensitive viewers are warned!]).

Will deep fakes be able to make the leap to the other side of the uncanny valley? Is it only a question of better technology? Or is there is something more profound in us, that will always sense there is something wrong? It may be a philosophical question, or even religious. But if deep fakes (or some other technology) one day will make it to the other side… where does that leave us? A place where there is no knowing what is real and what is not. Perhaps that is the real meaning of uncanny.