The Uncanny Valley of Food

In robotics and artificial intelligence, the term “uncanny valley” refers to the unsettling and often repulsive feeling of encountering robots that appear almost, but not quite, human.

I can’t help but think that food is also in an uncanny valley. We are eating food-like substances that are almost, but not quite, real food.

Before discussing the implications of remaining in the uncanny valley, where fake foods reign supreme, and to find the road to greener pastures, it may help to better understand the path of robots and AI.

What is the uncanny valley?

As robots become less like square metal boxes and more like humans, our emotional reaction to them becomes more positive, until a point is reached in robot evolution where our reaction changes suddenly from positive to negative.  Robots start to look less like cute pets and more like brain-eating zombies that we want to avoid.

As robots continue to appear more human-like, they actually get creepier and creepier, until all of a sudden they’re not so creepy–they’re simply human looking.

The uncanny valley is that awkward space between robots looking adorably  non-human to being so human-like that you can barely tell the difference between a robot humanoid and an actual human.

For example, this little dude is very non-threatening, but also not very familiar:

As our robot friends become more human-like, they become more familiar looking and “cuter”:

…Until they reach a point where the more human-like they appear, the less cute and more creepy they seem:

Eventually robots reach a point where they’re at maximum creepiness and give us the most negative emotional reaction. They’re getting closer to appearing human, but there’s something about them that gives us the heebie-jeebies:

I’m assuming this is the head of a small robot child, possibly the more subtle but equally murderous cousin of Chucky:

Nothing about this robot makes me feel safe:

Brain-eating zombie, or robot? You decide:

Finally, with only slight improvement, human-like figures exit the uncanny valley and look more or less human, in a way that doesn’t make our skin crawl:

Although clearly not homo sapiens, there’s nothing about the artificial Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina that makes me want to immediately leave the room:

Lil Miquela is an online avatar with 3 million Instagram followers. She’s not real, but she’s also not creepy:

With a vertical axis of familiarity and a horizontal axis of human-likeness, we respond more positively to robots as they get more humanlike (yellow section), until there’s an “uncanny valley” (red section) where they’re creepily humanlike and nonhuman at the same time, and finally robots appear so humanlike that we respond positively (green section):

Food is also in an uncanny valley.

Just as robotics and AI scientists are attempting to mimic real human beings with human-like robots, many food companies are attempting to mimic real foods with food-like substances.

Before the 20th century, nearly all foods were “natural” in the sense that they were minimally processed. Outside of the overconsumption of stored grains and a few miscellaneous preserved foods, everything we ate–both plants and animals–was recently alive (berries, potatoes, fish, spinach, etc) and more or less in its natural environment.

In the 19th century, 90% of the population lived on a farm and each farmer grew enough food to feed three to five people. Obesity was uncommon, and heart disease was unheard of.

Then in the early 20th century, with the discovery of vitamins, we actually made food healthier by filling in nutrient deficiency gaps. We added Iodine to salt in the 1920s to prevent goiters and Vitamin D to milk in the 1930s to prevent rickets. But we took the tinkering too far, and in the mid 20th century, the processed food revolution began and we started our inevitable descent into the uncanny valley of food.

Refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, factory farm meat, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil (Crisco), and “vegetable” oils like soybean oil and corn oil became staples of our diet, and more and more of what we ate began to come from a bag, box, or bottle instead of a pasture or garden.

Crisco convinced the world that it’s not so important to look at the ingredients of what you’re eating as long as you trust the brand from which you’re buying, and thus an era of huge “trusted” food brands was born, that would eventually lead to multinational holding companies like Kellogg, Nestlé, B&G Foods, Unilever, General Mills, Conagra, and PepsiCo.

Today, only 1% of the population lives on a farm and the average farmer feeds 166 people, primarily in the form of refined flours, sugars, and vegetable oils, which make up more than half of the calories we consume on a daily basis [1].

Looking back at the processed foods we’ve been eating for the last several decades, I cringe the same way I cringe when I look at creepy robots.

In our journey through this strange time in the uncanny valley of food, real foods are replaced with junk foods, creating convenient cheap alternatives at the expense of our health.

Growing up, many kids eat more Funyuns than actual onions.

Margarine (now marketed as plant-based butter) has replaced real butter in millions of homes.

Recent generations of Americans have largely skipped the most nutrient-dense cuts of meat and opted instead for factory farm hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, and processed meats with many of the same ingredients found in junk foods [2].

Across the world, potatoes have been upended by potato chips and french fries and fresh milk is being replaced by oily grain waters.

In short, one-ingredient foods are being replaced by multi-ingredient foods.

Something as seemingly simple as packaged oat milk contains most of the same ingredients found in donuts: refined grains, processed sugar, and vegetable oils, in addition to phosphate additives, flavor additives, synthetic vitamins, and gums. We’re taking ingredients that have not been a regular part of the human diet for 99.9% of our evolution, and trying to twist, fold, and shape them into things that resemble traditional foods. And the result is rather creepy.

One only need look at our decreasing healthy life expectancy, and increasing rates of chronic disease and deforestation to know that staying in the uncanny valley of food is clearly not working and is putting us on a path to extinction.

So how do we get out?

What Elon Musk can teach us about escaping the uncanny valley

To understand how to escape the uncanny valley of food, away from creepy, unhealthy, unsustainable foods and toward foods that more closely resemble what we hunted and gathered for most of our evolution, let’s take a page from my business prophet Elon Musk’s book and look at robotics and AI again, as well as the problems and solutions in the energy and transportation sectors.

In 2017, Musk publicly announced his concerns about AI, stating that we could possibly create “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind.” In other words, according to Musk, the next evolution of AI may be less creepy and more humanlike, but also far more dangerous.

In order to prevent a future of evil robots, Musk co-founded OpenAI And Neuralink to develop safer AI and to eventually fuse humanity with AI. “If you can’t beat em, join em,” joked Musk in regards to Neuralink’s mission statement.

While Musk could have put his vast resources toward thwarting AI, especially in the US, it would have been a game of whack-a-mole, and a country like China or Russia would have ended up with the first general AI, and who knows where that story leads. Instead, Musk decided it would be more important to develop safer artificial intelligence and to distribute it widely.

Similarly, Musk realized that the way out of the mess of fossil fuel reliance was not to try and convince everyone to take the bus to work and use less air conditioning; rather, he’s built cars, solar panels, and batteries that make doing the things we love less environmentally draining, without affecting, or perhaps even positively affecting, the activity.

Driving a Tesla is a better experience than driving a gas-powered car, solar panels from Tesla may save customers money in the long run, and a rechargeable lithium-ion Tesla Powerwall offers more convenient energy storage.

Many people buy Teslas first and foremost because they’re superior cars, and then once they’ve purchased the car, they justify the purchase by boasting its environmental friendliness and safety.

One solution to dwindling finite resources is to of course just require people to use less of those resources, but as more and more of the world transitions from developing to developed, they will want the same luxuries afforded to developed countries for the last several decades — to drive fast cars, take long showers, turn on the air conditioning, and eat whatever they want whenever they want. The best solution to address these issues is not to restrict people’s use of showers or shame them for driving; rather, it’s to educate about the problems and then develop and widely distribute better solutions.

Our way out of the uncanny valley of food

If the way out of other uncanny valleys is through a combination of awareness, education, and superior solutions, what that means for food is not to thwart innovation, restrict the consumption of certain foods, or make compromises, but to develop and distribute better options–better for human health, better for the planet, and better for our taste buds. “Don’t eat meat” is a tough sell. “Eat meat that’s delicious and good for the planet” is easy to get behind.

However, unlike robotics, AI, and electric cars, where there are no evolutionary precedents or biological components, food is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past and becomes a part of every cell in our body. There may be little downside to embracing technology to the fullest in other industries, but there are grave consequences to using technology to introduce new compounds in the food industry that are misaligned with our biology (just look at trans fats, olestra, and aspartame).

Food technology should be utilized to sustainably scale and widely distribute the same nutrients we’ve been eating for thousands of years, as opposed to introducing entirely novel ones, and should embrace ancient wisdom instead of trying to outsmart it. Just like AI scientists attempt to mimic real human consciousness, innovations in food should mimic historically precedented ways of eating. The food we’ve evolved to eat is the best guide to what we should continue to eat.

That’s not to say the way out of the uncanny valley of food is through a return to hunting and gathering. What worked for us 100,000 years ago is not realistic for a planet of 8 billion hungry, productive humans.  We need innovation and better solutions in food production and farming, from regenerative agriculture to fermentation, to transcend the uncanny valley of creepy, deadly, environmentally destructive foods, but those solutions should be rooted in ancient practices, without the risk of massive negative externalities that create more problems than they solve.

Otherwise, there may not be any humans left when our super-intelligent robot overlords come to greet us.

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