The uncanny valley
There are some weird goings on in the world of robotics. Not long after robots have learned how to walk on two legs, they’ve taken to mimic us humans in both appearance and behaviour. Robots are getting more and more human-like.
That’s not the weird part though. The weird part is the instinctive and very strong negative response those robots evoke in us humans. Why is that? Shouldn’t robots that looks more like us be seen as more friendly and attractive?
Close but no cigar
Let me give you a few examples:
Repliee Q2 is an actroid from Japan. She is a stationary robot, which means she can’t walk about, only sit in a chair and move her arms, head and change her facial expressions. Her face has been designed to be able to mimic all the basic human expressions like fear, happiness, anger and curiosity. Cameras capture the activities of humans in her vicinity and trigger her response. If you smile, she will most likely smile back.
She’s utterly terrifying. Her hair and skin texture is very realistic but her movements and expressions are only vaguely human. The combination of her life-like appearance and machine-style motions will make a possessed clown-puppet wielding a bloody butchers knife comforting by comparison.
By contrast, Disney’s WALL•E is a different story all together. Although not a real-world physical robot, he does evoke a human response in anyone watching the film. How is that possible? After all, he’s just some caterpillar tracks and grasping claws fitted to a metal box and a couple of video cameras welded on top.
The reason he appears so loveable is that he behaves as if he had real human emotions and aspirations. We can identify with him, even though his appearance is so different (he doesn’t even have a real face). His behaviour humanise him, just as it does for cartoon bears, lions and other fable-like characters.
The same effect can be seen in computer games. Crysis, although now considered quite an old game, was revolutionary in terms of graphical fidelity.
However, even though the game sported an all but photorealistic quality, most of the characters portrayed display the same uncomfortable effect as the actoids: their appearance is very life-like, but their body language and facial expressions are not.
The overall effect is that of a plastic animatronic puppet, pretending to be a human being.
Compare that with Alyx, one of the main characters in the award-winning game series Half-life 2. Being a much older game than Crysis, it doesn’t feature the same advanced graphics, and its characters are less photo-realistic.
But its saving feature is the animations, both in terms of body movements and facial expressions. It feels like there’s a real person with you in the game, not just a pile of polygons and animation scripts.
I guess there’s no coincidence that Alyx has got a huge following online, with countless fan sites and several depictions of a slightly *ahem* carnal character.
The uncanny valley
Scientists have – of course – given this effect a name: uncanny valley. It’s expressed as a graph with human likeness on the x-axis and familiarity on the y-axis:
In the graph you can see how the human likeness at first increases with the familiarity of the robot, but when they almost perfectly resemble a human being the familiarity drops drastically. It’s not until they’re virtually indistinguishable from a real human that the familiarity start to rise again. The effect is even more pronounced when the robot or puppet moves.
I find this fascinating. Why do we have this dip in likeability as robots become more and more like us?
Human pattern recognition
Us humans are rather bad at multiplying large numbers. We also pretty much suck at parallel-reading vast amount of texts, flawlessly performing repeating tasks and quickly cross-referencing search terms. Overall, we’re just a bit rubbish.
But, on the other hand, we excel in one thing: pattern recognition. We’re awesome at picking out recurring events and detecting cause and effect in complex chains of events. In addition, we’re eerily good at picking out who’s just a bit different. Without fault, any group of people will almost instantly identify and isolate individuals with minor deviations in appearance or who behave in non-regular ways.
I believe that is what might cause this uncanny valley effect: we see something that looks like a person, but that person behaves in an odd and non-human manner. This triggers our pattern recognition circuit and we immediately identify the robot as an imposter.
Ok, so far so good. We’re obviously very good at picking out discrepancies in human behaviour. But why should those discrepancies trigger such a negative response?
Analysing the negative response, it seems to consist of both fear and disgust. It’s the same response we would have to someone suffering from some horrific and disfiguring disease like leprosy or elephantiasis. Combine that with an unfamiliar behaviour and you got the worst possible scenario: a potentially contagious illness that affects the brain and behaviour of the patient. Obviously such a person should be avoided at any cost.
And interestingly, people are very reluctant of touching actoids – in fact, they often take several steps away from it and shield their children. People behave like it would be highly contagious and potentially dangerous.
Fear of the odd
Humans are social creatures. This means we live in close proximity of each other. Large number of individuals living in close-knit groups is the perfect breeding ground for contagious illnesses. In order to minimise the risk of becoming ill, we’ve learned to fear what we don’t understand: people with strange and scary appearances, or people who behave in odd ways trigger our disease alarm system. And I believe this is why we have the phenomenon called uncanny valley – when robots or puppets become life-like enough to be confused with real human beings, but they don’t behave quite like human beings it gives the signal that something is wrong.
So the fear of the odd is a defence mechanism. And the poor actoids are just caught in the cross-fire of the arms race between humans and pathogens. Ah well, not to worry. Soon we will have robots that not only look like us but also behave just like us. Then we will have left the uncanny valley far behind us. The future is bright. And robotic.