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What is ‘Uncanny Valley’, and why is it so creepy?

‘Uncanny Valley’ is the name of the phenomenon whereby a humanoid object bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a deep sense of unease or revulsion in the viewer. Coined by the robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, the original hypothesis states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, the emotional response to the robot increasingly positive right up until it reaches a threshold where the response swiftly shifts to strong feelings of revulsion and eeriness. It’s safe to say that the majority of us have experienced this phenomenon – examples can be found in almost all genres of entertainment, including films, games, toys and animations. So, why do we experience this response?

uncanny valley

Well. Although a number of theories have been proposed, no one really knows for certain why we react like we do. However, here are some of the most popular ideas:

  • Mate selection. Some scientists believe that the ‘uncanny’ response is triggered by the innate desire to avoid selecting a ‘sub-par’ mate. When selecting a sexual partner, humans make hundreds of unconscious assumptions about their prospective partner, all based on visible features of the face and body. Therefore, as a humanoid object becomes more realistic and yet not quite human, it triggers an adverse response from the subconscious.
  • Violation of human norms. Generally, if an object looks sufficiently non-human, people tend to look for any noticeable human characteristics in order to generate empathy. This is an example of the psychological phenomenon ‘pareidolia’, where the mind responds to a stimulus (usually an image or a sound) by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists. It happens to all of us on an almost daily basis – we see dogs ‘smiling’ at us and we point out the ‘Man in the Moon’. However, if the object in question looks almost human, we judge it by human standards. This makes the non-human characteristics much more noticeable, giving the viewer an unshakeable feeling of strangeness. In other words, an object within the Uncanny Valley is not seen as, for example, a robot doing a passable impression of a human. Instead, we see it as a human doing an awful impression of a normal person.
  • Pathogen avoidance. Some people believe that ‘uncanny’ stimuli trigger a cognitive mechanism that initially evolved to help us avoid potential sources of pathogens and illness. This does make sense, as the more human-like an organism looks, the stronger our aversion to its defects. It is thought that this is due to more human-like organisms being more likely to be genetically related to humans, potentially enabling pathogens to species-hop and infect us.
  • Conflicting perpetual cues. Apparently, the negative effect associated with some types of ‘uncanny’ stimuli could be produced by our inability to categorise the object in front of us. This phenomenon is called ‘perceptual tension’, and occurs when an individual observes conflicting cues (e.g. a humanoid figure moving like a robot or displaying robotic parts). This causes a cognitive conflict – much like cognitive dissonance – which is often experienced as psychological discomfort.

However, although all those theories revolve around humans and human perception, we aren’t the only ones to experience ‘Uncanny Valley’. In a 2009 study, researchers at Princeton University in the US found that monkeys also experience the phenomenon. When shown a series of realistic, unrealistic and photographic images, the monkeys were unwilling to look at the realistic 3D face, a response that is mirrored in humans. For some, this is a strong indicator that the response may have an evolutionary origin.

So, will we ever get beyond Uncanny Valley? Some people believe so. It has been proposed that as robots and other human-like artificial agents are created, our perceptual systems may become realigned to accommodate these new entities. It has also been suggested that the Uncanny Valley may be generational, and as more young people are exposed to and become used to CGI, robots and other human-like objects, they may be less affected by their incongruity.

With machines such as Hanson Robotics’ ‘Sophia’ igniting interest across the world – she has entertained millions on international television and graced the cover of the magazine Elle – it may only be a matter of time before the Uncanny Valley flattens out.

Tabitha Watson

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