In the 1970s, Masahiro Mori, a pioneering Japanese roboticist, published an article entitled “The Uncanny Valley,” coining a term and a theory of robot design that’s still widely subscribed to today. He proposed that people are more empathetic to robots that look more human up until the point when the robots start to look just a little too human. That’s when the uncanny effect kicks in–and when humans become creeped out or revolted by the robot’s not-quite-right appearance (see examples here). The effect no longer applies, of course, when a robot looks so realistically human that people can’t tell it’s a robot at all.
Silicon Valley would do well to remember this lesson today, applied to an entirely different field: Its new quest to reinvent the lowly veggie burger.
A number of startups today are attempting to spark a second-wave veggie burger movement. Their aim is to make plant-based burgers (and other kinds of meat) that “looks, feels, tastes, and acts like meat,” in the words of Beyond Meat, a company backed by Bill Gates and Twitter’s co-founders. Or look at another company, Impossible Foods, founded by a former Stanford University biochemistry professor. It’s going so far as to attempt to replicate a burger’s blood, fat, and connective tissue–all with plant ingredients. Morningstar, this is not.
As a vegetarian for the last six years, I am oddly not the primary audience for most of these products. Instead, their makers want to appeal to the much larger market of dedicated meat eaters–to convince the carnivore’s stomach, rather than his heart or mind, that he should eat less meat. These companies, though for-profit, talk about their mission with a social good mindset. As Impossible Foods’ Patrick Brown told Co.Exist: “one of humanity’s biggest challenges is figuring out how to feed 10 billion people without turning the planet into one giant cow pasture.”
These are laudable goals, and as world population grows and more countries develop a U.S.-like appetite for meat, we clearly need new tactics for meeting increasing food demand without further damaging the planet. But there’s problems with the high-tech veggie burger strategy, the foremost of which is the need to forge the uncanny valley.
For one, vegetarians actually don’t want a burger that tastes too much like meat–when I tried a burger made with Beyond Meat’s beef crumbles, I was grossed out because the texture felt far too real. Yet mainstream meat eaters aren’t going to truly love a burger that tastes a lot like meat, but not quite, either. Why would they? By inviting the direct comparison to meat, these brands are reminding consumers it’s not real beef at the same time they’re hoping to mimic it. They are in effect plunging themselves into the uncanny valley.
And as Dan Nosowitz at Modern Farmer points out, even a successful attempt to make a plant-based burger that is indistinguishable from meat will likely fail. It has to taste *better* than meat or eschew the meat comparison entirely. If it doesn’t, then dedicated meat eaters have no reason to switch from what they know–at least based on taste motivations alone. “Just as good” is never good enough when asking people to adopt unusual alternatives to their ingrained choices.
The best high-tech hope out there for reinventing the hamburger is with actual meat. Last year, scientists created the world’s first “test tube burger”–real meat, grown from cells in a lab rather than cows on a farm–and had a taste test in London. The burger tasted like meat because it was really meat. (Just as, one day, technologically-advanced robots may make us question what it means to be human). However, this miracle burger–though free from animal cruelty and factory farm pollution–cost $325,000 to make. We’re a long way from feeding the world with it, and the challenge of growing a steak or chicken in a test tube and replicating all the forms of meat that people love today is going to be far harder.
The sad thing is that real veggie burgers actually offer a palette for creativity in the kitchen, especially when freed from the constraints of resembling meat. Delicious and healthy veggie burgers are made from nearly any plant ingredient you can think of, including but not limited to beets, beans, quinoa, falafel, cauliflower, lentils, walnuts, rice, and soy.
And this highlights the larger reason why, at least as a social and cultural proposition, the new veggie burgers will fail to make the hoped-for splash. To really shift eating habits, today’s meat eaters need to become less addicted to the taste of meat, not more. That will require developing tastes and foodie fetishes that lean on healthier proteins, grains, and produce. And the world’s new meat eaters–those in developing nations increasingly mimicking U.S. eating habits–will need to see that tasty, convenient, packaged, or fast foods don’t have to have meat in them to taste good.
There’s nothing wrong with Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat, or any of the other companies out there with similar goals, and more alternatives never hurt. It’s just that a more meaty veggie burger probably isn’t going to change the world.