In the 1970s, Masahiro Mori was a professor of robotics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. His study of robots was not the usual kind, because it deal with the emotional response of humans to "robotic entities". Mori had his own idea about religion, humans, and robots, and he was looking for a way to theorize it. So he invented The Uncanny Valley theory to describe the meaning of his observations. The concept could be summarized as follows: As robots become more like humans, they become more attractive, but only up to a certain point. Affinity turns into alienation, discomfort, and a tendency to become frightened or agitated when we reach the uncanny valley. Thus, the uncanny valley can be defined as humans’ negative reaction to certain realistic robots.
I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the uncanny valley [The Uncanny Valley: The Original Essay by Masahiro Mori].
Mori made a graph and constructed it in this way: on the abscissae he indicated the similarity of the robot object to a human being, on the ordinates he indicated the degree of affinity felt by humans observing these robot objects. Near the zero point on the abscissae are the industrial robots, so that people see them as different from human beings or as merely mechanical: the degree of affinity they feel with them is close to zero. In the opposite corner of the graph are robotic objects that mimic human aspects and feelings, so the degree of affinity felt by the observing human is higher. This is disturbing, and observers enter the Uncanny Valley.
Robots as acceptable humas
We are in a kind of borderline science. The Uncanny Valley does not qualify as science; Mori never considered it to be fully scientific. For him, it was only an attempt to give robot designers guidance and to explain, in a certain way, the relationship between humans and machines. It is a useful concept for creating robots with an appearance and potential interactions that are "acceptable" to humans. A robot or an avatar (think also of the meta-universe, video games, movies) can be constructed with the right degree of realism to avoid the "valley" area. To avoid negative emotions such as aggressiveness or the hypocrisy of a fake smile, facial elements such as the forehead, eyes, and mouth can be modeled to represent the complexity of emotions and thoughts.
“We’re trained to spot even the slightest divergence from ‘normal’ human movements or behavior. Hence, we often fail in creating highly realistic, humanlike characters. We find the likability to increase and then crash once robots become humanlike, but we have never observed them ever coming out of the valley. You fall off and that’s it.”
[Christoph Bartneck, associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, here]
Just an example: Alter
Alter 3 is powered by an artificial neural network. To make it capable of interacting with humans, the researchers equipped the robot, which has a human-like face and a robotic body, with cameras in both eyes and a vocalization system in the robot's mouth. Can making contact with it be creepy?
The Cyberpunk in the Uncanny Valley eerie sensation
What does cyberpunk have to do with it? In cyberpunk (especially Gibsonian cyberpunk), technology and body modification implants have a dual function: 1) to relativize its value and invade its biosphere; 2) to enhance its capabilities beyond its natural limits. In the urban, dehumanizing contexts of the cyberpunk novels (but also short stories, films, video games...), protagonists who use (or are forced to use) invasive substances for physical enhancement often achieve only a change in their "ability to be human," losing control. There is a constant tension between the desire for immortality through these enhancements and the risk of disembodiment with the complete loss of the physical dimension of the self. Reality becomes a hallucination (Gibson's consensual hallucination) as the real plane and virtual plane overlap. The distinction between them thins the more the characters enhance their bodies and rely on virtuality (or all the technology that allows this virtuality to become hallucinated reality). The only reliable (in the sense of plausible) sesorial perception is the constant hum of the light cables that wrap the cities. It confirms that something physical is still needed to transmit data. But everything becomes information. It is the glue between the physical body and the disembodied identity that inhabits cyberspace through robotic augmentation.
Is it about facing the "end" of everything?
In cyberpunk, people enter the uncanny valley when they begin to be afraid. When their bodies, augmented with cyber grafts, become an attempt to solve an existential puzzle, but they realize that they are beyond the distinction between man and machine. Perhaps the real anxiety lies in discovering that we are not immortal, despite all we invent, and that the transhuman vision typical of cyberpunk is more of an illusion. Facing a robot that perfectly mimics our human nature is unsettling because it makes us feel "replaceable," because it no longer allows us to recognize who is human and who is not. It can be. Perhaps the heart of the problem when death comes is the fear of being forgotten and replaced. The thought that when we die, no one will remember us, our presence, what we did. But is that going to happen? Does the legacy of a human being run out? Does memory fade away? Is this the great anxiety hidden in cyberpunk novels?
I keep searching for an answer.
- The Uncanny Valley: The Original Essay by Masahiro Mori “The Uncanny Valley” by Masahiro Mori is an influential essay in robotics. This is the first English translation authorized by Mori, here.
- Digital Resurrection Brings Star Trek Back to the Future Visual effects involving deceased actors are increasingly commonplace, here.
- An Uncanny Mind: Masahiro Mori on the Uncanny Valley and Beyond An interview with the Japanese professor who came up with the uncanny valley of robotics, here.