Warning: This dog bites!

Kylie Prymus is the first columnist for PS Fanboy. A Ph.D candidate in philosophy, Kylie specializes in the sociology of technology. Through this new weekly column, Kylie will explore the impact of PlayStation on thought and culture.

I'm talking about this dog. Not just any dog. The Big Dog. It may not have teeth (though I'm sure those servo-motors could put a hurtin' on) but when I was shown this video earlier in the week I felt sure it had taken a few nips at my soul. Cut the dog down to two legs and increase its size tenfold and you've got a nearly perfect real life version of the Geckos from MGS4.

While I've mentioned MGS4 to a greater or lesser degree in previous columns, thus far I've avoided tackling anything in the game head on. This is largely because, as readers of my last post are aware, my PS3 is several states away and I haven't been able to watch play the game through to its conclusion. Don't worry, I'll pick up Snake's saga in a couple weeks (he's at the front of the line just ahead of Niko and Zack), but I should be able to make a few observations about the game given what I have played (up to the middle of Act 3). If you haven't yet done so I suggest you hit the first link above and check out the video of Big Boss Dog.

If you haven't seen the Big Dog before you probably thought the video was pretty awesome - I know I did. Go back and watch it again a second and third time. . . Starting to get creepy yet? I can only imagine what it must be like to see this thing noisily sauntering along in person. What particularly gives me the heebie jeebies is about a minute and a half in when it starts slipping on the ice and manages to correct itself. There is something decidedly insect-like in those movements; I can imagine the Big Dog flipped on its back, flailing its legs like a capsized cockroach. Somehow, despite bearing almost no resemblance to a human being, this pack-mule has fallen deeply into the uncanny valley.

For the uninitiated, the uncanny valley is a decades old hypothesis that says as robots get closer to resembling humans they reach a point at which they cease to be cute and steadily become more and more creepy. Given further advancements in technology, robots (perhaps by that point more accurately termed androids) will resemble humans so accurately that the creepiness factor is diminished, but until we reach that point our creations will rest in the valley, providing plenty of ammunition for nightmares about Brent Spiner. With the development of CGI this hypothesis has also been applied to digital represetations of humans. Keep in mind that robots/renderings that fall into the valley don't necessarily give us the "zomg Charles Lee Ray is coming to get me" feeling as much as they make us feel slightly unsettled. Both Heidegger and Freud spent far too much energy exploring the meaning of the uncanny, but we can sum it up by looking at the German equivalent to the word they chose to dissect: unheimlich, which literally means "not at home". When we peer into the valley we see things that are familiar yet not and we are unsettled as if were in a place almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea home.

Let's bring this back to the Geckos. Assuming for the sake of argument that the uncanny valley can be applied to representations of non-human organisms, why don't I get that creeped out feeling when going toe-to-toe against them in MGS4? The obvious answer is that they are too far removed from reality to invoke the primitive "WTF?" response characterized by the valley. As digitally animated representations of artificially constructed simulations of something vaguely resembling a human torso (whew!), the only emotion they're likely to invoke is awe at their graphical splendor. But what happens come the day that the Gecko, or something like it, is real?

One thing the Metal Gear series is known for is making us question the future of military technology. What the Gecko/Big Dog juxtaposition has got me wondering is how much of a role the uncanny valley will play in the design of future weapons of war. Won't killer machines (or transports, or spy planes) double as destroyers of morale if we intentionally design them to fall into the valley? Done well enough, could war machines of the future effectively constitute physical and psychological warfare? Will an entirely new set of rules similar to the Hague and Geneva conventions need to be designed to protect us from unethical-uncanny-psychoterrorism?

I don't know about you, but I've got the willies imagining one Big Dog swaggering down the street outside my window, and it's little more than a multi-million dollar conveyor belt. Now picture several dozen of them, armed to the servo-motors with automatic weaponry, converging on you with those somehow smooth and simultaneously spastic leg movements. Call me paranoid, but that scares me a lot more than an army of T-800s; their overly deliberate stride isn't quite realistic enough to summit that first hill and descend into the valley. Sure they have the general eerieness associated with soulless, amoral, murdering machines - the endoskeleton, not Schwarzenegger - but the Geckos are just anthropomorphic enough to send us tumbling head-over-heels into uncanniness.

If World War 3 is going to be fought by some sort of heebie-jeebie-uncanny-unsettled-creeped-out-wtf-eerieness, I'll be in the bomb-shelter with my PSP², say thankee. It may be more than just coincidence that this thing is being funded by DARPA. Yea I'm talking to you Anderson. This is one slippery slope that even the best Big Dog may not be able to stand upright on.

(deepest apologies to those offended and/or scarred by the gratuitous Guttenberg)