Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Uncanny Valley

“If you see something that... looks human and isn't, you keep your eyes on it and you feel for your hatchet.” – C.S. Lewis

Today I have a guest, Will Woolston. He has been thinking about the problem of the Uncanny Valley recently, and, because we are members of the same household, I have been thinking about it as well. Since we both enjoy science fiction and fantasy, many of our examples are references to that. Will is 16.

What is the Uncanny Valley?
            It's a problem that has been plaguing programmers, animators, roboticists, and many others whose profession entails copying the human form. The “Uncanny Valley” is the point where an almost-human object causes humans to be instinctively “creeped” out. According to a guy named Bryant, it "is where monsters dwell, in the classic sense of the word. Frankenstein’s creation, the undead, the ingeniously twisted demons of animé and their inspirations from legend and myth, and indeed all the walking terrors and horrors of man’s imagining belong here. In essence, they tend to be warped funhouse-mirror images of humanity....” 
It's basically a trough in the curve of a graph...
Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist encountered the problem. The more human features he added to his robots, the more people enjoyed looking at them and being around them--to a point--then people were revolted. Revulsion is the word most often used to described the reaction. Vaguely human robots were charming. Robots that were nearly human caused a negative reaction. Mori coined the term “Uncanny Valley” (or “Bukimi no Tani Genshō” in Japanese) to describe this phenomenon. This theory explains why the characters in the  movie Polar Express movie are creepy while barely distinguishable 8-bit characters like on the Nintendo Entertainment System are charming. This phenomenon still isn't well understood.
When we started talking about this, you really caught my attention when you mentioned dopplegängers. What is the relationship between dopplegängers and the uncanny valley?
            Well, a dopplegänger is a double of a living person that sort of haunts or stalks the original. Robots, especially Geminoid robots, can be thought of as dopplegängers. Ray Bradbury's story “Usher II,” plays on the fear that robots like that can trigger in humans...
 “The others are dead. The ones you saw killed were the real people. The duplicates, the robots, stood by and watched” --(Bradbury).  
An android robot that is a copy of an actual person is a Doppelgänger--and humans fear it might replace them. 
Pretty much the whole plot of Battlestar Galactica depended on that idea. But what's the non-fiction? What's the psychology?
 I believe this theory holds some water, as some people may have an irrational fear of getting replaced, perhaps due to a machine taking their job. However this theory has some holes. For example “Zombie” is at the bottom of Mori’s Graph, everyone is “creeped out” by zombies. Minus the whole brain eating thing (it could be a friendly zombie), we would be scared of a zombie because it is, essentially, a human with something seriously wrong with it,  not because we’re scared of a zombie stealing our girlfriends or jobs. Another huge hole in this theory is that if we were truly scared of being replaced, the graph would not go back up--more humanlike would always be more repulsive, but that's not the way it is. Wouldn’t it make sense that a perfect human replica would have a better chance of replacing a person than a zombie does? This is an interesting concept, but not the correct one.
            I think the answer is closer to something I read in Tove Jansson’s work. One of her fictional characters feels around in a strange and unfamiliar place and he discovers that  “all the things around him were false. Their pretty colours were a sham, and everything he touched was made of paper or wood or plaster.” This quote deals not so much with the pit of the graph, but with the part that says “Prosthetic Hand.” If you shake a person’s hand that looks almost exactly like a real hand, but you realize that it feels cold and mechanical, it can be disturbing. But if the hand looks obviously fake there is no shock value. This theory is much sounder than the theory prior to this one since it explains both sides of the graph. A perfect prosthetic arm raises no alarms (End of graph), a prosthetic arm that is obviously prosthetic loses the shock value (Beginning of valley), and a hand that is almost perfect makes the problems with it more apparent (The middle of valley). 
So is the problem deceit? Is the revulsion caused by feeling deceived?
That's part of it--so keep it in mind as we move on to the next theory: Pathogen avoidance. We just don't want to be around things that are sick. Agatha Christie’s short story ‘The Dress Maker’s Doll’ depends on that fear to work. 
It ain’t natural, if you know what I mean. All those long hanging legs and the way she’s slouched down there and the cunning look she has in her eye. It doesn’t look healthy, that’s what I say.”
 Basically the deal is that the more human a thing looks, the more any defects worry us. Defects indicate disease. And if something looks like us, we are probably susceptible to the same infections. This theory lends itself well to the valley, as a great majority of classic monsters have the ability to infect their victims such as zombies, vampires (sparkly ones not withstanding), and Lycanthropists.  This theory is another piece of the uncanny puzzle.
So we have deceit and disease. Is there any better or additional theory that you think explains the Uncanny Valley?
            There are other theories, but they all seem to revolve around a concept of violation of human normality.  This idea seems to be the most widely accepted as it explains every aspect of the valley. A cartoon character is allowed to be goofy, zany, and obnoxious. They aren’t human, just goofy representations of humans and are endearing. However if a person acts like a cartoon character, they will probably be disliked. Same thing with androids; if a robot looks human, but the movement is jerky and the speech is delayed as it calculates answers to questions, we see it as a mentally challenged human rather than an intelligent robot. Given this theory we can figure ways to avoid the Uncanny Valley--at least in robotics and animation.
It's not so easy to avoid falling into the Uncanny Valley by violating human normality in real life...
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