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The Uncanny Valley: When Robots Look Human, But Still Don't Convince


Figure of a robot that draws attention because it does not look like a human. This is the valley of uncanny
Strange isn't it?

Have you ever felt a sense of discomfort or revulsion when you see a robot, a doll or an animated character that looks a lot like a human being, but is not?

If so, you've probably experienced what's called "weird valley," a concept that attempts to explain why some imitations of human appearance make us feel uncanny.


In this article, we will explore what the uncanny valley is, what is its relationship with other areas of knowledge, such as aesthetics, robotics and cinema, and what are the objects that fit into this phenomenon. We will also see the origin of the term and what are the studies that try to prove or refute this hypothesis.


What is Uncanny Valley?


The uncanny valley is a hypothesis formulated by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970. According to him, the more human-like a robot is, the more positive and empathetic is the emotional response of human observers. However, when reaching a point of maximum similarity, empathy becomes a strong revulsion, as the robot looks "almost human", but still has subtle differences that make us realize that it is not real.




The name "weird valley" comes from a graphic Mori drew to illustrate his idea. The graph shows the relationship between verisimilitude (how much something looks like reality) and empathy (how much we identify with or are attached to something) of different objects. On the horizontal axis, we have objects ranging from the least human-like (like a ball or a bat) to the most human-like (like a corpse or a zombie). On the vertical axis, we have the level of empathy we feel for these objects.


The graph shows that empathy increases as likelihood increases, until it peaks when the object closely resembles a healthy, living human. However, shortly after this peak, there is an abrupt drop in empathy, forming a valley on the graph. This valley represents the point at which the object looks a lot like a human, but is still not identical, causing a feeling of strangeness and revulsion in observers. After this valley, empathy increases again as the object becomes indistinguishable from a real human.



The name "weird valley" comes from a graphic that Mori drew to illustrate his idea. The graph shows the relationship between verisimilitude (how much something looks like reality) and empathy (how much we identify with or are attached to something) of different objects. On the horizontal axis, we have objects ranging from the least human-like (like a ball or a bat) to the most human-like (like a corpse or a zombie). On the vertical axis, we have the level of empathy we feel for these objects.
Uncanny Valley Chart

What is your relationship with other areas?

The concept of the uncanny valley applies not only to robotics, but also to other areas that involve the representation or imitation of human appearance, such as computer graphics, design, aesthetics and cinema.


Computer graphics


In computer graphics, the uncanny valley can explain why some characters in animation or video games make a negative impression on us, even if they are technically well done. One example is the 2019 film "The Lion King", which used realistic visual effects to recreate the animals in the story. Despite the technical quality, many viewers criticized the film for having characters without expression or emotion, who seemed more like robots than animals.


Design


In design, the valley of uncanny can influence the creation of products or interfaces that communicate with human users. For example, some designers argue that it is better to use simple icons or drawings to represent people or actions than to use realistic photographs or images, as these can generate a negative or indifferent reaction from users.


Aesthetics


In aesthetics, the valley of weirdness can be related to the fact that some people have plastic surgery or use makeup to change their appearance. Some of these interventions can result in an artificial or exaggerated appearance, which can cause strangeness or rejection in others. An example is the case of actress Renée Zellweger, who in 2014 appeared with a face very different from what was known by the public, generating many comments and criticisms.


We see this a lot in celebrities and sub-celebrities who carry out numerous aesthetic interventions…


Cinema


In film, the uncanny valley can affect how viewers relate to characters and story. Some movies use real actors to play fictional characters but use special effects to alter their appearance. One example is the 2012 film "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", which used motion capture technique to transform actor Martin Freeman into the character Bilbo Baggins. Despite the intention to create a character more faithful to the book, some viewers felt that the result was artificial and uncomfortable to watch.



What are the objects that fall into the uncanny valley?


In addition to robots and animated characters, there are other objects that can fall into the uncanny valley, depending on the context and perception of each person. Some examples are:


- Dolls, mannequins, statues or masks that imitate human appearance;

- Stuffed, taxidermied or dissected animals that look alive;

- Prostheses, implants or artificial organs that replace parts of the human body;

- Clones, androids or hybrids that mix human and non-human characteristics;

- People with deformities, diseases or genetic mutations that alter their normal appearance.


Is it a universal phenomenon?


Despite being a widely spread and accepted concept, the uncanny valley is not a universal and unquestionable phenomenon. There are several criticisms and questions about the validity and applicability of this hypothesis.


One criticism is that Uncanny Valley is based on an anthropocentric, Westernized view of reality that ignores cultural and individual differences in the way people relate to non-human objects.


For example, in some eastern cultures, such as Japan, there is a greater acceptance and appreciation for objects that mimic human appearance, such as dolls or robots. In these cases, the uncanny valley may not exist or be less intense.


Another criticism is that Awkward Valley is based on weak and inconsistent empirical evidence, which does not consider the contextual and situational factors that may influence people's emotional response.


For example, a person's reaction to a robot may depend on its purpose, role, environment, and interaction with the robot. Also, the reaction can change over time as the person gets used to or familiar with the robot.


A third criticism is that uncanny valley is based on a simplistic and reductionist psychological explanation, which does not consider the complexities and nuances of the cognitive and affective processes involved in perceiving things.



uncanny valley for cartoons

How does the uncanny valley fit into literature?


The uncanny valley is a concept that relates to science fiction and fantasy literature. He refers to the feeling of strangeness that arises when we come across something that is almost familiar, but not exactly the same as what we know.


In literature, this feeling can be exploited to create characters and settings that are both familiar and strange. Some examples of works that fit into the valley of strangeness are “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”, by Douglas Adams, and “The Dark Tower” by Stephen King.


In short, the uncanny valley is a concept that aims to explain the feeling of estrangement and revulsion that some imitations of human appearance cause us. Although it is widely disseminated and applied in areas such as robotics, computer graphics, design, aesthetics and cinema, the uncanny valley is still the subject of criticism and questions about its validity and universal applicability.


Regardless of that, understanding the valley of uncanny can help us reflect on how the appearance of objects can affect our perception and emotions, and how we can use this knowledge to create more effective and user-friendly products and interfaces.


That's where this concept is taken seriously in data science, and I heard about it in my grad school.


If the text was strange, leave it in the comments.


Have a nice weekend.

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