Frank Fiore – Novelist & Screenwriter

December 4, 2011

The Valley of the Uncanny

Filed under: Frank Remarks — Frank Fiore @ 10:51 AM

Ever wonder why robots for personal use and play look cute (AIBO) or small in stature (ASIMO)? Why we relate more to robots that look like stuffed animals, for instance, than to industrial robots.

One theory is that the closer they come to looking uncannily like humans the close they come to falling into the ‘Uncanny Valley’. At least, that’s the concept coined by Robotics Master Masahiro Mori.

Wired magazine did a large portion of their current issue on the Uncanny Valley.

In 1970, Mori, then a 43-year-old robotics researcher at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, published his now famous work not in a science journal but in an obscure Japanese periodical called Energy, owned by the oil company Esso. (That’s EXXON now for you younger folk) “It was an advertorial magazine,” he says. In that article, Mori envisioned a time when robots would become so sophisticated that they would look almost exactly like humans. But that “almost” was a problem. Whatever else those future bots might prove to be, he said, one thing was certain: They would strike us as monstrous. Mori created a chart describing how our degree of identification and empathy with inanimate objects increases as their appearance approaches our own. But at a certain level of near-humanness, our affinity falls off a cliff. Mori dubbed this the Uncanny Valley.

In short, Mori noticed that people presented with likenesses of increasing realism respond with increasing empathy, right up to the point where the likenesses are almost real. At that point, people are repulsed. When asked if there was a way to bridge the valley he replied, “Yes, but why try? I think it’s better to design things like Honda’s ASIMO, which stops right before it gets to be uncanny.”

When you are in the presence of ASIMO, it dawns on you that it’s not as tall as an average human but about two-thirds the size–the height of an average child.

Pretty uncanny of those Japanese – huh?

The Uncanny Valley has also been blamed for the box-office failure of movies like Beowulf and Final Fantasy. Perhaps almost-real humans look a bit too much like corpses for our comfort.

Can you think of other movies whose characters give you the creep crawlies?


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