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.
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.