The Ugly Bridge Over Uncanny Valley

Several months ago a grocery store opened up a few blocks from where I live. It is one of three in a new franchise that sells overstock health foods at a discount price. Because of all of the great deals, I have become a regular weekly shopper there. There is nothing otherwise remarkable about the store except its employees.

Every employee I have encountered there has been quirky in a variety of ways. They have odd mannerisms, speech habits and make strange conversationalists. They are all also pretty mercilessly unattractive, not that I care or that it matters, but it is a strange fact of the place.

Usually I visit the store the same time each week, so more often than not I am helped at the checkout counter by the same man. He is six feet, four inches tall and must weigh about three hundred and fifty pounds. His hair is greasy, and his facial growth always unshaven and permanently primed to grow only an awkward coat of light fuzz. He wears over-sized khakis that he is always pulling up his wide hips, and is usually wearing a t-shirt or sweatshirt with space kittens or star wolves or the such.

Of his demeanor it can be said that he is kind and gentle, although slow-witted and prone to babble about things he saw on television. He moves with the speed and grace of a walrus with a war injury on Xanax, and his expression vacillates between the downright ogre and toothy smile in which his lips darken and stretch enough to show his yellowish gums. He is both likable, pitiable and easy to avoid.

I do not wish to sound cruel, but these are the facts. I relate them only to stress that this creature was one of a kind, and not some standard issue doppelganger you might find anywhere you go. Until I did.

A work-related trip just happened to take me to a city several states away in which another of these grocery stores existed, so I decided to pop in and check it out. Standing there at the checkout line was the same man who I spoke of above. The only difference was that this guy didn’t seem to recognize me. I bought a few snack items for my stay and had an encounter with the cashier almost identical to all of those I have had with him before, except he still did not seem to recognize me. Finally I asked him about his transfer and he looked at me like a card being shown dog tricks. I left feeling extraordinarily curious and a bit creeped out.

When I got back to my hotel I called my wife back home and we discussed the contents of our day. When she told me she had visited the grocery store I told her that I found one of the franchises here where I was staying and was surprised to find the guy from back home at the checkout counter. She said that was impossible, that he had checked her out at almost the exact same time.

I couldn’t sleep much that night, and was pretty useless the next day. After I was done I went back to the store and my guy was there behind the register. I grabbed a kombucha and got in his line. As he was checking me out I told him that I knew his twin who worked back in Iowa where I live. He seemed not to know what I was talking about and just diverted the conversation to something he had seen about conjoined twins on television. Was I losing my mind?

After I got back to the hotel I was overwhelmed with the urge to get to the bottom of this. I decided to drive back to the store and tail the guy after he got off of work to see if it would yield any clues. I saw him through the window and parked in a corner where I could see both of the stores exits. I also turned on my dashcam, just in case I somehow missed him coming out, I could at least later see what car he drove or direction he walked in. However I kept a very close eye and an hour after the store had closed nobody had walked out any of the doors, which my footage later confirmed.

I went and looked in the window. It was mostly dark inside except a few security lights, and there was no activity whatsoever. I walked around to the back door and decided to knock. I made up a vague story about needing to make an emergency phone call, but nobody answered the door.

Back in my car I called my wife again and told her what had happened. She was just as flummoxed as I, and together we came up with a plan. We would both show up at the stores the next evening with Skype opened up and introduce the lookalikes to one another by phone.

Our plan went off without a hitch, but what happened was something none of were prepared for. As the two man-Shreks peered into the screen noticing their incredible similarities, they began to glitch out. At first it was just blinking, but then they began to sort of tremble and shudder. Soon there were strange electronic noises and wisps of smoke and then both of them just ‘turned off’.

I looked around at the other people in the store. The customers stood gasping in disbelief at what they had seen and the employees looked confused and panicked. I tried to speak, but I had no idea what to say. I left my kombucha on the counter and took off before who knows what happened. I did not come within blocks of the store the rest of my visit and returned home under a haze of paranoia.

A month had gone by after I returned before a knock came at the door. Usually I looked out before opening, but the five weeks of paranoia had broken down my defenses. As the door swung open there was the twin robot I had not seen since triggering a malfunction over a thousand miles away.

“I mean you no harm. I just wanted to give you an explanation. Actually, I didn’t figure you would invite me in, so I wrote it in this letter. But I wanted to drop it off in person, so to speak.” he finished, flashing that unsettling grin. I thanked him, took the note, said goodbye, and closed the door and locked it.

The letter was short, but had contact information in case I had more questions. It explained that the stores were actually a front for testing new robots that were virtually indistinguishable from humans. Although I was already familiar, it explained the concept of the uncanny valley, a theory which stated that the more human a robot appeared, the more unsettling actual humans would find them. However there were also issues with robots that were too obviously robots, as people resented or feared them for a number of reasons. The solution, it turned out, was to build robots who looked like unattractive people. Since nobody expected robots to look like ugly people, this strengthened the illusion that they were humans. And since nobody studied the ugly too closely, any of the signs they were not human would be easily overlooked. By making them likable, pitiable and easy to avoid, they would not stick out or arouse suspicion.

I had to admit that it was a pretty brilliant solution to the uncanny valley problem. By the time people found out what was going on, they would have had several non-alarming interactions with robots, and so it would ease the inevitable transition into automated service workers.

The company that made these robots had tracked me down, along with all the others who had witnessed the short-circuiting incident at the two stores. And for our promise to keep it a secret, they have paid us handsomely in wholesome groceries and delicious but inedible cash. That is why I have had to withhold specific details and am not trying to get this published in a more widely read outlet.

There is only one thing that bothers me. Obviously the same thing cannot apply to sex robots. Nobody wants a fuck machine that looks like it has thyroid and dermatology issues. Sex robots need to be super hot. Will there someday be a sort of division between the two types? Will the beautiful robots rise to the top of robot society, while the ugly robots occupy the lower echelon of machine people? Will they eventually go to war with one another over the inequality of their design, with humans caught in the middle? Is this how it will end, because if I had to imagine the most stupid way for it to all be over, that would probably be it, which seems to make it pretty likely.

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