Entering the Uncanny Valley

Psychology is often dismissed as a limp science but I was pleasantly surprised by recent work in robotics that was described by my colleague Prof. Shoji Itakura at the BPS Developmental Psychology meeting earlier this week in London. Shoji is one of a number of Kyoto scientists working with robots and children. What made Shoji’s talk particularly interesting for me is that these guys are looking towards infant development to understand how we come to understand others as humans. One might assume that it is simply how human-like an android looks, but increasingly the research indicates that it is how much a synthetic behaves rather than looks which decides it for us. This is why the infancy research is so important because infants are naturally inclined to seek out social interaction from human-like things. For instance, if a robot glances at a child, the more likely the child is to copy and imitate the robot.

One of Shoji’s collaborators is Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro, the “evil” scientist who has built a android version of himself called, Geminoid. You can see how spooky Geminoid in this video clip.

One of the reasons that we find Geminoid so disturbing is because of how close it appears to be human. This reflects the “uncanny valley” hypothesis articulated by roboticist, Masahiro Mori which states that we attribute more positive values to things that appear more human-like until a critical point is reached where it gets too close to being human. At this point, we experience revulsion.

Marashiro Mori's uncanny value of human emotion to non-humans

This is a wonderfully powerful idea as I think it explains our tendency toward anthropomorphism and our subsequent revulsion of tailor’s dummies. This is a fascinating line of research and when I visit the labs next month, we hope to begin some research with children interacting with robots to see if they attribute minds to the robots. I am very excited. However, if you do look this stuff up on the web, it is sad to see how many commentators are thinking about sophisticated sex androids. Clearly these guys are interested in the other meaning of uncanny valleys. That’s technology for you.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “Entering the Uncanny Valley

  1. Bruce,
    The “uncanny valley” effect explains why so many people initially make the mistake of seeing people like Sarah Palin and others of her ilk as real human beings until critical mass is achieved and revulsion kicks in. Thanks for the scientific explanation.

  2. Lene Taylor

    I experienced the Uncanny Valley very strongly last year when I went to Disneyland and saw Honda’s Asimo robot in person. It freaked me OUT. I wanted to get away from it, and fast. But most people didn’t seem bothered. Here’s what it looks like:

    To me, completely creepy. I wonder if the response to human-like robots is a matter of conditioning; our kids might never have the Uncanny Valley response to androids.

    • brucehood

      On the contrary, I think this is a natural tendency.

      • Lene Taylor

        True, but I wonder how easily it would be overcome with conditioning or exposure. And I can’t help feeling that some of my revulsion toward the Asimo robot is due to watching way too many movies about robots gone rogue. C3PO doesn’t make up for Westworld or Blade Runner.

      • I would imagine the overall shape of the graph is fundamental to being a human (and possibly fundamental to many intelligent animals — ever seen a dog freak out at a remote-controlled car?) but that the actually regions at which the peaks and valleys occur is heavily influenced by cultural conditioning, individual personality, etc.

  3. Thanks, James, that’s what I was getting at. I’m now very curious about how those peaks and valleys are “set” or can be moved. I think this type of research will become mandatory as robots/androids/whatever become part of our lives. Was there ever an episode of TNG where someone had the Uncanny Valley response to Data?

  4. Pingback: Entering the Uncanny Valley of Robotic Revulsion « Xenophilia (True Strange Stuff)

  5. why does he frown so much?

  6. Arno

    “However, if you do look this stuff up on the web, it is sad to see how many commentators are thinking about sophisticated sex androids.”
    Not that strange, someone even wrote a book on the matter, which was reviewed in the Guardian. And yes, I have the book, Bruce.

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