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Traversing the Uncanny Valley

July 11, 2011 Leave a comment

The Uncanny Valley is a place that exits in robotic and animation theory that when humans observe a replicant that can look and act almost, but not perfectly, like a real human they feel revulsion. It interests me because the work to overcome this in robotics, and digitally, I think offers possibilities for creating online relationships.

I want to explore the non-online world of robotics and the Uncanny Valley for a moment. The valley doesn’t exist obviously, it is theoretical and was coined by Japanese robotics expert Masahiro Mori. I like Mori for a number of reasons, not the least that he believes, as do I, that the best ideas are born in the bed, the toilet or the bath.

According to Wikipedia Mori’s original hypothesis in a 1970 paper argues a robot that is too human-like can veer into unsettling territory, tripping the same psychological alarms associated with a dead or unhealthy human. Or, as Mori puts it: “There’s a fine line between cute and scary.”

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that an almost human-looking robot will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathic response required for productive human-robot interaction.

The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s human likeness.

Mori's Uncanny Valley

Mori's Uncanny Valley

There’s some rebuttal of this theory of human-to-non-human revulsion – particularly in this article in Popular Mechanics. The writer argues that the creepiness of replicants – “the humanoid robots with taut, rubber faces constantly evolving from Asian labs, and Hollywood’s computer-generated stand-ins, their eyes darting and glassy and corpse-like” – is heightened by remote viewing. That once you meet the android: “most robots, particularly ones designed to interact with humans, are simply not scary“.

Real-life robots being showcased in Japan now, such as Repliee Q1 may still veer towards the Uncanny Valley.  Like her slightly creepy brothers and sisters, she doesn’t look like she gets out of a chair much so probably have limited application in helping around the house. Possibly you could envisage a retail Repliee Q1 in a front-desk role in a business – but she’d never be able to leave her post to, say, guide someone to another area of the store.

An admission – my first online job was giving the world’s first digital news presenter, Ananova her daily voice via a text-to-speech engine way back at the end of the first dot-com bubble. So I have a certain fondness for digital 3D avatars. Looking back, Ananova was such a Y2K girl with her endearing glottal stop and slightly unnerving twitches – that I guess she was always clearly perceived as just a 3D head tragically born too soon for 3G. A D waiting for the G.

Ananova

Ananova - the world's first digital newsreader

But she looked great.

Outside of thumbnail pictures on social media sites, avatars haven’t really caught on in a big way in the online world. And this is despite their potential to deal with customers 24/7 without all the downsides of humans, such as pay; sickness; sleep; Mondays etc. Only two large corporations using digital avatars currently spring to mind – NAB and Ikea. According to the NAB, in 2008, their online assistant was proving successful . Ikea also use an automated online assistant, Anna. Anna and NAB’s online assistant hardly create a stampede to the Uncanny Valley – they’re too, well, obviously cartoony and unreal for that.

But the technology around 3D animation is now really moving apace. I’m talking about the amazing, but closed, 3D virtual worlds such as Second Life, as well as the innovations in 3D gaming. This year’s hit action-adventure game L.A. Noir should have us fleeing, screaming to the Uncanny Valley – or is it just too realistic to be Unheimliche? The technology behind the game animation is extraordinary:

It makes me wonder how close we could get in the online world to crossing the Uncanny Valley into a new place, where the interface between humanity and technology becomes actually attractive.

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