The Uncanny Canyon: Part I

In the world of robotics there is a peculiar and well-known phenomenon known as the Uncanny Valley. In case you haven’t heard of it, we will briefly define the concept. If you would like to know more, please take a moment to e-search the subject before we continue.

The term Uncanny Valley was first used by a 1,970 year old Japanese robot named Masahiro Mori to describe how people react to humanoid robots, or androids. Some machines are not humanoid at all, such as the toaster, and we do not feel anything for them, apart from a mild appreciation for making our lives more delicious. We treat anthropomorphic contraptions like ASIMO as, in my opinion, a domesticated animal, such as a raccoon or bunny rabbit. The idea is that as robots become more human-like, we treat them with more respect and affection, but only until they reach the edge of the Uncanny Valley.

When encountering an artificial being, whether it’s an android or a computer generated character, we empathize with that being to a level appropriate with its appearance and personality. For example, R2-D2 does not have a humanoid body, but she does have a simple vocabulary of bleeps and whistles which allows us to empathize with the droid. C-3PO, on the other hand, has human form and is fluent in over six million forms of communication, though they must be spoken with a dainty English accent; his appearance and character elicit a response similar to what we would give an annoying child. One would think that as synthetic beings surpassed this stage, they would be welcomed as equals into society. Instead, they tumble down into the depths of rejection.

When a robot such as Wall-E or Johnny 5 embarks on an adventure, we are drawn in by their emotional journey, fragile whimpers and large eyes, but when we saw Actroid unveiled in 2003, something was clearly wrong. There’s no doubt that Actroid is more human in voice and appearance than any of the other androids we’ve mentioned, but there is something unsettling about a machine which so closely resembles ourselves. Theories range from a fear of robot dissent to the existential threat to our individualism – knowing that we could be copied or replaced. For now, let’s agree that there is just something creepy about these machines.

There is hope for aspiring androids; they can ascend out of the Uncanny Valley. Some say that by adding comical features we may restore emotional attachment to these rejected robots, but this merely pulls them backward, toward less convincing models. In order for these machines to achieve equality with humans, they must break through the barrier of believability and earn our love by an impeccable imitation, leaving not a hint of suspicion.

Today, androids of this caliber must still reside in the land of fiction. In movies and television their roles are filled by actors wearing cosmetics and costumes. Some motion pictures have attempted to capture the human form using computer generated images, but none have quite convinced audiences of the legitimacy of their characters.

In part II we will explore what the Uncanny Valley can teach us about subjects beyond the mechanical imitation of human beings.