The Uncanny Valley might not actually exist

The Uncanny Valley is that point where something designed to look human gets too close to success, and ends up accidentally reminding us of the many, many ways that it also looks totally alien. The result: A one-way ticket to Creepoutsville.

Or, anyway, that's the hypothesis. See, despite the fact that we've long treated it as a given, the Uncanny Valley isn't a proven concept. In fact, writes Rose Eveleth at The BBC, the original 1970 paper that described the Uncanny Valley wasn't really based on research at all. It was more of an essay. An essay that nobody much questioned for 30 years. Since 2000, there's been some actual research on the subject, and the results are very mixed. Some studies can find evidence of the Uncanny Valley. In others, though, it appears to not exist at all.

In one study, David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, in Plano, Texas, and his colleagues showed participants images of two different robots that were animated to simulate human-like facial expressions. The survey simply asked the participants what they thought of the experience. The vast majority (73%) liked the human-like robots. In fact, not one person stated that these robots disturbed them.

Hanson and his team then showed the participants a continuum of images, starting with a picture of Princess Jasmine taken from the Disney movie Aladdin. Over the course of six images, Jasmine’s face slowly morphed into that of actress Jennifer Love Hewitt. The idea of these facial progression studies is to try to observe the dip in likeability that Mori predicted between an obviously cartoon image and an obviously human one. The participants were asked to rank the acceptability of each picture in the series. But, again, rather than see a dip in the scores in the middle of the range – as the uncanny valley would predict – none of the images seemed to bother anyone.

Eveleth's piece is definitely worth a read. Not only does it challenge out accepted cultural wisdom, but it also suggests that there's more to what creeps us out than the simple concept of an Uncanny Valley is capturing. There might be other factors that determine whether a human-looking thing gives us the willies, or is no big deal. As we think about the future of robotics, figuring out what those factors are will become more and more important.

Image: plastic smile, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 29233640@N07's photostream

Notable Replies

  1. Glitch says:

    I honestly don't get what the fuss is about.

    "The Uncanny Valley" is simply a handy way of refering to a specific phenomenon. The situation it describes is real - or at least the basic facets of it are. Certain kinds of human-looking objects invoke certain kinds of "creep-out" effects in certain people. Referring to that response as "The Uncanny Valley" seems entirely reasonable as just a useable label.

    Mori wasn't a scientist performing research on human behavior - he was a roboticist describing an effect that he had seen in action. People were, and still are, creeped out by certain human-like things, and he, as a roboticist, came into direct contact with that human response. It wasn't hypothetical - he had people telling him things like "That's creepy!" in regards to human-like robots. So it's not at all shocking that his explanations of the phenomenon are not scientifically accurate or comprehensive - he never intended for them to be!

    Moreover, the BBC article is absolute rubbish. It cites the Hanson study, then immediately points out that this particular study has been criticized. So a single study that they admit is almost certainly flawed is grounds for a misleading headline about how "The Uncanny Valley" might not even exist? Talk about your senseless invent-a-controversy journalism!

    The rest of the article talks about how other studies have had difficulty "mapping" the effect, feebly attempting to use that to prop up the article's earlier suppositions. Honestly? They're seriously suggesting that the fact that science hasn't yet been able to properly measure the phenomenon in easily understandable ways means the effect itself may not actually exist? Rather than the possiblity that - just maybe! - it's just one of those weird facets of our own immensely complicated human nature that is beyond our understanding for the time being?

    Absolute rubbish. The BBC should be ashamed for putting out that article, and BoingBoing should be ashamed for championing it.

  2. Glitch says:

    If you're suggesting that journalism no longer serves to inform the public but merely to entertain, then I suppose you are correct to some degree.

    In you're instead trying to mock my verbose commentary on the articles, that's another matter.

    It's hard to tell which. wink

  3. kmoser says:

    The closer we get to defining "uncanny valley" the more people object to its definition because of how artificial it sounds. If only we had a convenient phrase to encapsulate those objections.

  4. Hmm. Can we formalize this comment such that it follows the following logic:

    10 If A = ( [looks] Dead ) then 50
    20 If A = ( [looks] Ill ) then 50
    30 If A = ( [looks] Hostile ) then 50
    40 If A = ( [looks] Artificial) then 50
    50 print "Uncanny"
    60 If A < > ("Uncanny") then 10

    Think subsections and nuances can be useful sometimes smile

  5. As a couple of commenters have touched on, it seems like the experiment may be trying to test the wrong thing. The key to the uncanny valley doesn't lie in the image, or the robot, or the animation -- it's the subversion of the viewer's expectations. Our discomfort isn't that the robot's eyes are dead-looking, it's that we expect them to look alive, and they don't. The phenomenon occurs when the item exists in a context where those expectations are raised and then dashed. This is why it's more commonly associated with near- (but un-)realistic renderings like The Polar Express, but it can still occur with non-realistic renderings like the test dummy in Monsters, Inc..

    It's such a commonly-understood response that in more extreme renderings, it forms the basis for a lot of horror movie cliches -- the dog that's really an alien, anything with creepy kids, etc.

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