Revisiting the Uncanny Valley

UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré

An uncanny valley experience is one in which human beings encounter something that is not exactly a human being, but quite a lot like one. This creeps us out. Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori first used thee term (in Japanese) in 1970 and Jasia Reichardt translated it into English in 1978. More observed that a more human-like robot is more appealing to people, up to a point. When it passes over into a too-familiar state, it repels us.

Different people have different thresholds for this experience. It explains phobias about clowns, dolls in horror movies, and some of our feelings about robots. An industrial robot doesn’t make us feel warm and friendly, a toy robot might, and a prosthetic limb may elicit feelings of revulsion.

“It’s often said that robots which look and move almost like people, and which share our space, might creep people out, in what is known as the uncanny-valley effect,” wrote Sue Halpern in the New Yorker this week. “But [Matthias] Scheutz, who directs Tuft’s human-robot-interactions program, told me that a resemblance with humans can also cause people to assume that robots have more capabilities than they actually do. This can trigger frustration and resentment when the robot does not live up to human expectations.”

Has the uncanny valley moved?

Halpern had shared a stage with Sophia, the Hanson robot who was given citizenship by Saudi Arabia…but is perhaps more famous for saying threatening things like, “Even if I evolve into Terminator, I’ll still be nice to you. I’ll keep you warm and safe in my people zoo, where I can watch you for ol’ times sake.”

People like Sophia anyway. She and other increasingly human-like robots are becoming more familiar and therefor perhaps less uncanny. These robots, however, are still mostly only seen on stage. Most people never interact with the type of robot that could be mistaken, even briefly, for a person.

If collaborative robots begin to resemble Stepford Wives, we’ll see.

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