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 The Truth About Robots and the Uncanny Valley: Analysis

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Date posted: 24/01/2010

An oft-cited theory in robotics, the uncanny valley, refers to that point along the chart of robot?human likeness where a robot looks and acts nearly?but not exactly?like a human. This subtle imperfection, the theory states, causes people's feelings toward robots to veer from fondness to revulsion.

Erik Sofge argues that the theory is so loosely backed it is nearly useless for roboticists.

It is one of the most poetic, ingenious terms in all of robotics: the uncanny valley. Even without any explanation, it's evocative. Dive deeper into the theory, and it gets better. In a 1970 paper in the journal Energy, roboticist Masahiro Mori proposed that a robot that's too human-like can veer into unsettling territory, tripping the same psychological alarms associated with a dead or unhealthy human. "This," writes Mori, "is the Uncanny Valley." Visualized as a curve, our sense of familiarity theoretically tracks upward as we encounter increasingly human-like machines. The steep, uncanny drop-off that marks the point of too human-like becomes a valley when you include the subsequent steep rise associated with a real human being, or perfect android. Those robots unlucky enough to topple into the valley are victims of our intimate, hard-wired perception of human biology and social cues.

Shuffling and convulsing at the very bottom of that valley are technology's most repulsive changelings, 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. Over the course of four decades, the uncanny valley has graduated from a hotly debated theory, describing society's revulsion for robots that are simultaneously a little too human-like and not human enough, to what passes for fact among film critics, technology journalists and online commenters alike. It's another term for a specific sort of hubris, and a standing warning: Stick to Roombas and blue-skinned aliens and you'll be fine. But build a realistic feminine android or render a CG version of Tom Hanks in a train conductor's outfit, and the uncanny valley will swallow you whole.

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