The uncanny valley: The problem with humanoid robots

Date:9 July 2019 Author: Sam Spiller Tags:, , , , , , , , , , ,

Research digs deeper into why people squirm at the sight of human-like androids and characters.

Android technology has come a long way since the sci-fi-inspired ideas of tin and clockwork robots. Androids can bear super-lifelike characteristics now thanks to their exterior mechanical design. There is, however, something about human-like robots that can make people feel very uncomfortable; when the design is almost too lifelike. This is due to a phenomenon called the “”uncanny valley”.

Recently, a team of researchers led by neuroscientist, Fabian Grabenhorst, conducted several study trails in which participants were shown various images of humans and human-like androids. Their responses to the androids were more negative in general. Reactions were heightened the more human-like the androids were made to look. Conducting MRI scans, the researchers could trace the responses to a specific part of the human brain. It is from here that the feeling of the uncanny valley arises.

The idea of the uncanny valley can be traced back to 1970 and Japanese robotics professor, Masahiro Mori. Mori’s original idea is simple. In the process of making a robot more human-looking, a real human’s emotional and  emphatic response to seeing it will increase and be more positive towards it. That is the case until a certain point is reached when the robot’s lifelike design suddenly instills a negative and harsh feeling of revulsion. This point is where the uncanny valley lies: when the design of a robot cannot be classified as either completely human or completely robotic.

The field of robotics is not the only place where the uncanny valley finds meaning. The term is also often used in popular culture in regards to the design of digitally-created characters in film and television. A good example of this can be found in Pixar Studio’s first feature-length film, Toy Story. Due to the technology of the time, the filmmakers could only achieve so much lifelike authenticity with the textures that could be applied to the animated wire frames that make up a scene. While this works well in creating toy characters that are made of plastic, the same cannot be said for human characters, like the young boy, Sid.

Another and more recent example of the uncanny valley can be found in the 2016 Star Wars anthology film, Rogue One. A character previously played by actor Peter Cushing in a previous Star Wars film was digitally recreated and animated. This was due to Cushing having died back in 1994. Response to the actor’s facial recreation were mixed, with many people saying that the design fell into the uncanny valley.

The data collected by Grabenhorst and his team will help designers and animators to create androids and characters that are more comforting and less repulsive to the human eye. This is by understanding what specific feelings they instill, and where those feelings come from.

Image: Unsplash

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