The Uncanny Valley

Think of a robot. Now describe it.

What is it wearing, if anything?

Is it all metal? Does it have a human, animal, or extraterrestrial-like face?

Does it walk on all fours? Or stand up like us?

Is it smiling? Or seem angry?

There aren’t “right” or “wrong” answers here, and not everyone will answer the same way. Because not all robots look alike. Wow, thanks Sydney, for stating the obvious over here. But…have you ever thought about why some robots are cool, and then others seem way too creepy? Welcome, The Uncanny Valley.

Scientists have (somewhat) figured out why the phenomenon of almost-too-realistic-human-like robots makes our skin crawl.

“I think the key is that when you make appearances humanlike, you raise expectations for the brain. When those expectations are not met, then you have the problem in the brain.”

Ayse Saygin

The Uncanny Valley is met when the robot (almost identically human in characteristic) tries, but fails to mimic a real human. Saygin says things like shoddy eye contact or jerky movements are usually dead giveaways. Our brains instinctively and unconsciously pick up on these unnatural movements, sometimes before we even consciously realize. Even when we know something is off, it’s hard to tell what exactly is making us so uneasy.

Some people in the field say it’s a good thing we’re able to have this ability to sense when something is non-human. A self-preservation intuition, as robots become more commonplace, this Uncanny Valley will “prove itself crucial as humanlike robots or virtual companions enter homes and businesses in coming years.”

A friend of mine is doing a project surrounding robots and mobility products in children’s hospitals. I had suggested doing facial charts on what we find charming, tolerable, and downright chilling. I’m placing a few photos below. See if you can spot the differences between them. The future is quickly approaching, and how will designers be able to fully integrate AI and robotics with us seamlessly? And do we really need, or want that?

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