When robotics professor Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” in 1970, he was both paying homage to Ernst Jentsch’s concept of “the uncanny” (and Sigmund Freud thereafter), as well as forever changing the way in which people look at lifelike robots. According to Wikipedia, the term itself is a hypothesis that robots (and 3D animation) which are designed to closely - although not perfectly - resemble and act like human beings causes revulsion in human observers. Mori’s original hypothesis states:
“…that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, a human observer’s emotional response to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the robot’s appearance continues to become less distinguishable from that of a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.
This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that an almost human-looking robot will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathic response required for productive human-robot interaction.”
Many animated films have danced around the edges of the valley with the occasional foray into its depths (i.e., the 2007 film Beowulf), although none more so than James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster Avatar. I personally witnessed several people leaving the theater, shaking their heads and muttering “I can’t believe that’s not real.” In fact, at least one suicide was linked to the film after the viewer claimed he was unable to cope with the doldrums of reality after seeing the film.
Recently, Swedish fashion giant H&M came under fire for using computer generated model’s to showcase their clothing online. The fashion and magazine industries have been touching up photos using Photoshop for years, so it was a bit of a surprise that people found H&M’s decision to use virtual models so objectionable. Some commented that it created an unrealistic expectation of what one should look like in their clothes but then again I think any model – male or female – would likely have the same effect for 99.9% of the world’s population.
As technology sophistication skyrockets in coming years and people become increasingly numb to the sensation produced by the uncanny valley, I think we can expect to find ourselves questioning whether or not what we’re looking at is really a person. Wired took their own humorous approach at addressing the phenomenon by placing celebrities along Mori’s curve (below).
While I completely agree that Joan Rivers and Lady Gaga have often caused me to stare in bewilderment, I think Wired crossed the line with Keith Richards – he’s not like a zombie, he is a zombie.
- Geek-out Sunday part XIV: geeks evolved (marshallstanton.com)
- Geek-out Sunday part XIII: augmented reality (marshallstanton.com)
- Geek-out Sunday part XII: Kilobot (marshallstanton.com)
- Geek-out Sunday part XI: Anthropocene mapping (marshallstanton.com)
- Geek-out Sunday part X: Imperial March (marshallstanton.com)