The uncanny valley is a fascinating phenomenon that raises essential questions about our relationship with technology. It is a reminder that we are still learning to understand and interact with artificial beings.
While the uncanny valley can be unsettling, it is also a testament to the incredible progress that has been made in robotics and artificial intelligence. As technology continues to advance, we will likely encounter more artificial beings that fall into the uncanny valley.
Meanwhile, this article explains all you should know about the uncanny valley, its examples, effects, and origin.
Table of Contents
What is The Uncanny Valley?
The term, uncanny valley, which was developed by roboticist Masahiro Mori, doesn’t refer to a physical location but rather to how uncomfortable or uneasy we feel when we come across a robot that exhibits some human-like traits.
These robots generally fall short of our expectations of what a robot should look and perform like before entering what Mori named the uncanny valley. And it causes humans to experience negative emotions.
Now, though, it’s not only robots that evoke these peculiar emotions. Meanwhile, Mori thought that our apprehension of animated characters and digital avatars nowadays was a survival reflex.
Origin of The Uncanny Valley
Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor from Japan, named this phenomenon bukimi no tani genshō in a 1970 article (Mori, 2012). Jasia Reichardt later translated this Japanese phrase from its original language into English as the “uncanny valley” in her 1978 book “Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction” (Kageki, 2012).
According to Mori’s original theory, up until a predetermined point in a robot’s resemblance to a real human, onlookers will react emotionally, more sympathetically, and positively (Mori, 1970).
At this time, the initially supportive and sympathetic emotional reaction quickly changed into a strong displeasure. However, as the robot’s appearance becomes even more human, the positive feelings return and its level of empathy approaches that of human relationships.
The emotional displeasure occurs in the uncanny valley between the appearances that are barely human and fully human. At this point, the robot, which resembles a human in practically every way, presents an odd spectacle to the viewer, who is uneasy or repulsed.
It should also be understood that while Mori’s work may have given rise to the idea of the uncanny valley, he was not the first to recognize it.
Charles Darwin stated in The Voyage of the Beagle after observing the face of a trigonocephalus viper, “I imagine this repulsive aspect originates from the features being placed in positions, concerning each other, somewhat proportional to the human face; and thus, we obtain a scale of hideousness” (Darwin, 1839).
Following Mori’s illustration of the uncanny valley, Darwin’s experience seems to reveal some cognitive processes that may be at the root of this phenomenon, as we will examine later.
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The Uncanny Valley Effects
It’s not like a Roomba or any other robot with a human-like face will make you uncomfortable. However, a particular motion or gesture, such as the nod of a robotic head, the blink of an artificial eye, or the silicone dimples on an artificial cheek, might soon cause discomfort.
And it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that these robots, who can replicate humans so well, arouse these kinds of emotions—after all, it is frequently striking how much they resemble humans in appearance and behavior.
Thus, the uncanny valley is primarily caused by human perception, not robots or the technology that makes them. Researchers believe they have found the neural mechanisms in the brain that trigger these negative reactions, they wrote in the Journal of Neuroscience that these mechanisms are “based on non-linear value-coding in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a key component of the brain’s reward system.”
But what exactly does this mean? Primarily, a robot is less likely to creep us out if it can do something that’s ultimately beneficial.
According to Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten, one of the study’s authors, “This is the first study to show individual differences in the strength of the uncanny valley effect, meaning that some individuals react excessively and others less sensitively to human-like artificial agents.”
“This implies that there isn’t a single robot design that appeals to or terrifies all users. I believe that intelligent robot behavior is very important because users will stop using robots if they are not intelligent and beneficial.”
Uncanny Valley Examples
Various contexts such as those involving video game characters and incredibly realistic robots, have led to the observation of the uncanny valley. Movies have also featured some of the most well-known instances of the uncanny valley.
1. Final Fantasy
The most lifelike CGI animation ever employed at the time was on display in the 2001 film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The movie failed despite efforts to make the animated characters seem incredibly lifelike. However, the uncanny valley is frequently blamed for the movie’s box office failure. Simply put, folks were put off by the animation and didn’t want to watch the film.
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Children’s reactions to Princess Fiona during early test screenings of the movie, Shrek, caused surprising sentiments of anxiety. Further, children were startled and even terrified by her because she was simply too lifelike, and many of them started crying whenever she came on screen.
Before the movie’s theatrical release, the filmmakers changed her looks to make her look more cartoonish to avoid the uncanny valley effect based on feedback and criticism.
Alter 3 is powered by an artificial neural network and was created by researchers at Osaka University and the University of Tokyo. Furthermore, researchers gave Alter 3, a robot with a human-like face but a robotic body, cameras in both of its eyes, and a vocalization device in its mouth to improve its ability to connect with people.
Engineered Arts’ Ameca is a humanoid robot with a silicone face and sensors that can track the motion of an object or person. It can distinguish faces and voices, and it can convey amazement and surprise. Also, Ameca can recognize emotions and age, in addition to yawning and shrugging. If you’re being too loud, it can also shut you down.
According to IEEE Spectrum, researchers at the University of Osaka created CB2, a child robot, in 2006 to study robot learning and cognition. CB2 was created to resemble the appearance and behavior of a giant two-year-old child. It was gray and hairless, with sensors embedded in its skin that resembled a futuristic space suit, and its eyes were fitted with cameras.
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Criticisms of the Uncanny Valley
The idea of the uncanny valley has also drawn some criticism. So, let’s discuss some criticisms of the uncanny valley below:
Age Could Be a Factor.
Some claim that older generations are more likely to experience the phenomenon. Younger individuals, on the flip side, who have grown up around robotics and CGI effects, may be less likely to experience it. However, it will take more investigation to ascertain whether age may have an impact.
The Impact is Extremely Variable.
Other critics have pointed out that the effect occurs in various contexts and impacts various senses. The heterogeneity implies that it could have several causes depending on the specific circumstances it happens.
It is essential to understand the uncanny valley and its effects so that you can better understand your reactions to artificial beings. Again, it helps you to be mindful of the ethical implications of creating human-like artificial beings.
Overall, the uncanny valley is a complex and fascinating phenomenon that has much to teach about ourselves and our relationship with technology.