The Uncanny Valley

Remember those Charles Schwab commercials from the last year or two ago?  They used an animation technique called rotoscoping, where artists trace each individual frame of a live action scene.  I recall finding those commercials annoying, bordering on downright disturbing.

It turns out that this reaction is pretty common, so much so that the phenomenon was given a name that has stuck for the last 40 years: the “uncanny valley,” a phrase coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori.  I recall first reading about this in an article from the December 2008 issue of Scientific American.  More recently, I saw it just last week in The Straight Dope.  (If you haven’t read the Straight Dope, I recommend it; Cecil Adams’ columns not only have some interesting information, but they are usually a pretty fun and amusing read.)

The uncanny valley is simple to describe.  Consider plotting a graph of humans’ emotional connection with a robot versus the extent of similarity of said robot to a human form.  (Wikipedia has a detailed such graph here.)  Such a graph will be increasing, with the exception of a marked “valley” or dip just prior to the point of indistinguishability between a robot and a human.  Put more simply, as robots, or animated images, or whatever, become more and more life-like, we appreciate that similarity more and more… but when a robot or image is so life-like that it looks “almost but not quite human,” we find it off-putting or even disturbing.

Beyond the Chuck Schwab commercials mentioned earlier, I think movie-makers might also find the uncanny valley an important consideration.  I remember Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within being an interesting movie at least from a technological perspective… but it also seemed a little spooky.  The more recent Beowulf had a similar effect, and not just because Angelina Jolie had a tail.  The interesting question, I think, is why?  What causes this reaction in us?  And if it’s not actually human, how close to “human” must a robot be to climb out of the uncanny valley?

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