What makes realistic robots so creepy?

Must We Bridge the Uncanny Valley?

Perhaps because its robotic looks don't set off the creepy detector in humans, Honda's ASIMO has become something of a robotics ambassador. The friendly 'bot even has a regular gig at Disneyland.
Perhaps because its robotic looks don't set off the creepy detector in humans, Honda's ASIMO has become something of a robotics ambassador. The friendly 'bot even has a regular gig at Disneyland.
©Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images for Honda

Although it's the goal of some roboticists to make androids that are so humanlike in appearance and motion that they get past the uncanny valley, many are sidestepping the issue by making non-humanlike but very expressive robots. Leonardo is a cute and furry robot made in collaboration between MIT and Stan Winston Studios. He can exhibit various facial expressions, can recognize faces and is being tutored by humans to learn various skills. And researchers such as Heather Knight believe that the social capabilities of the robot may also be key to avoiding the uncanny valley.

There is a school of thought that robots could be made to appear, as well as communicate and interact socially, just enough like people to make us comfortable with them, but not so much that they truly appear human. The idea is to give robots enough features that will make us anthropomorphize them, such as the ability to give and respond to communication cues, to recognize people's emotional states and respond accordingly, and to exhibit personality and emotion (however artificial), among other things. The robots would have their own form, one designed for whatever work they were meant to do, and the disconnect between our expectations and their appearance wouldn't occur. Mori himself even stated in his 1970 article that designers should strive for the first peak in his graph, not the second, to avoid falling into the creepy area. Perhaps this approach would help robots to fit seamlessly into our lives without giving us the heebie-jeebies.

But others continue to strive for total human realism, like Ishiguro, who is among those who believe that androids can bridge the uncanny valley by increasing humanlike appearance and motion. Aside from their realistic hair and skin texture, his Repliee Q2 and Geminoid HI-1 were both also designed to perform common involuntary human micro-movements, like constant body shifting and blinking, as well as breathing, to appear more natural. And they utilize air actuators, with the help of an air compressor, to affect motion without emitting mechanical noises.

Culture may also play a part. In Japan, artificial forms are already more prevalent and accepted than they are in places like the U.S. There have even been a couple of synthetic pop stars (one animated, and one a computer-generated mashup of the features of her real band members). Perhaps the uncanny valley can be traversed in other parts of the world via the increasing prevalence of androids. Maybe we'll all just get used to them.

But this is not a phenomenon that only occurs with robots. It happens with other largely realistic renderings of the human form, such as animations. There were many reports of people finding the animated human characters in the movies "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" and "The Polar Express" as creepy or off-putting. Both films were touted for their breakthroughs in computer graphics (CG) photorealism. But the characters weren't real enough to transcend the valley.

We can try everything from decreased realism to full-on human mimicry to further experiment with what forms and functions we are most likely to accept from our robot and computer-generated brethren. We need to either traverse or flat out avoid the uncanny valley, because robots and computer graphics are with us for the long haul.

Author's Note

I, for one, will welcome our robot helpers, be they shiny metal machines or silicone-skinned androids. I am a mediocre housekeeper, sometimes do more harm than good when trying to carry out repairs, and would much rather read a book than have to pay attention to the road while driving to work, so I can see a few good immediate uses for advanced robots. Sure, care needs to be taken when it comes to matters of safety and ethics. In literature and film, robots tend to go haywire and either kill or subjugate their makers. But given that the only household robots currently commercially available are toys and vacuum cleaners, I doubt we'll get to fully sentient humanoid artificial intelligences anytime soon. As far as my grout is concerned, the future can't come soon enough.

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