Uncanny Valley


Getting on the train this morning, some schoolkids behind me were chatting together without much regard to their voice levels. One had a lisp and was clearly educating the other, who seemed to be driving her own train of thought rather than listening, but I definitely thought what the first girl said was interesting. When they got up to get off, I pulled out my phone to look up the phenomenon they had been discussing.

What they were discussing was the idea that ‘things that look human but are not quite human tend to freak us out’. Thinking about it, this is definitely true in various ways - in particular china dolls or BJDs that people can consider ‘creepy’. I too once thought that these were creepy, but for some reason have since warmed up a lot to BJDs, though not china dolls.

This can be considered as the ‘uncanny valley’ phenomena.

uncanny valley
used in reference to the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.

This CNN article defines it this way:

The uncanny valley is the idea that as a robot's appearance becomes more and more humanlike, we don't always respond to it more positively. Rather, there's a point on the scale between robot and human where we are repulsed. If it's mechanical but not entirely human, a robot seems disturbing.

Which brings with it a new aspect that I hadn’t immediately jumped to.

Apart from the fact that the article mentions clowns and zombies (more on that below), the idea that once a robot gets too close to being a human we are repulsed by it has been used in fiction before (and the opposite, of course, but there are always exceptions).

Written by the British team Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, based on the award-winning Swedish science fiction drama Real Humans, [Humans] explores the emotional impact of the blurring of the lines between humans and machines.

One such example is the Humans Channel 4 TV series where the mother of the family joined by ‘Anita’ really considers her as creepy and is suspicious of her as one would be to another human. But Anita is ‘just’ a Synth, informed by programming and often (appears) unaware of the impact of her innocent words. (“I’m watching you.” “I’m watching you too, Laura.”)

On the other hand, this series would seem to show that once these robotic Synths have passed this uncanny valley, they are no longer creepy and become natural again. An object of wonder for researchers of course, and also considered ‘dangerous’ and necessary to contain and restrict and maybe even destroy as they threaten the existence of humans as a human-like but non-mortal being. But nonetheless the unease itself is no longer present.

Article seems to support this:

It would make sense that as human likeness increases in a robot, so would our comfort with it. But on a graph showing that relationship, there's a "valley" where this familiarity dips down into creepiness, and then comes back up again with more human characteristics.

Uncanny valley doesn’t seem to make an appearance in a show like ‘Chobits’ though, which at its whole is a story about love between an Android girl with a slowly unfurling past, and a young Japanese guy. This is probably because of the above where the Android, Chi, has surpassed this uncanny valley. She has human-like mannerisms and a child-like curiosity and wonder about things, unlike the rest of her kind. Yet at the same time, rather than being repulsed by cables coming out of her head, there’s a sense of curiosity. So ‘emotion’ is definitely one of the factors in terms of exceeding this uncanny valley.

Now the CNN article mentions zombies and clowns, which is strange:

What do zombies and androids have in common? They're almost human, but not quite. That disconnect is creepy, in a way that scientists are searching to understand.

[...]

you might get freaked out by clowns or by photos of people with extreme plastic surgeries who don't look quite real anymore. Our brains come to an impasse when we see something that resembles a member of our species but just doesn't make the cut.

The Madame Tussauds wax figures I would agree with, yet strangely enough people pay to go and see these wax statues of popular public figures, despite this. Personally I would be creeped out, but we all seem to experience uncanny valley in slightly different ways. In my experience these figures often look lifelike enough, yet faced with an image of the statue and the ‘original’ side-by-side, it’s obvious which one is real.

But for zombies and clowns - zombies in particular I feel are not really subject to the uncanny valley phenomenon. Perhaps it’s more of a matter of being accustomed to seeing them or being desensitised to them due to the fact they appear so much in popular culture - in games, in movies, in TV shows… Zombies can even be cute, if you can trust ‘Plants vs Zombies’.

However clowns are a different matter. While I’ve never considered clowns to be creepy personally and don’t understand fright like Bart Simpsons’ terror of clowns (yet not Krusty?), I know that there are some that think clowns are really creepy and scary. That’s strange to me - a man who is supposed to look silly and bring laughter with his crazy antics somehow makes people freaked out?

Nonetheless, I do think we’re more desensitised in terms of the uncanny valley phenomenon these days. People are dressing up to look like dolls, doing zombie walks, and watching anime and TV shows where Androids walk around and act like ‘humans’ without batting an eyelid. Of course, we think it’s all fictional now, and perhaps would view the ‘real deal’ with a different perspective, but I guess we can only wait and see what the future will bring.

(Hey, if Japan can have a fully automated hotel, why would this seem far away? Even if this is just a bit of a novelty as the name, Henn na Hotel (Strange Hotel) might seem to suggest.)