On Aug. 17, 2016, Rhett James McLaughlin and Charles Lincoln “Link” Neal III, the creators of the YouTube series Good Mythical Morning, posted a video titled, ‘Why Creepy Robots are Creepy’. The video begins with a brief, but ominous, introduction made by McLaughlin: “Today we trudge the depths of the Uncanny Valley.” After a few minutes pass, the true nature of the video begins to surface. All desire to talk about that fades away into an abyss comprised of fear of the unknown.
What was once a vague concept in the mind of Masahiro Mori, a professor of robotics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in the 1970s, has become a staple principle in robotic design. In a 2012 article published by the techie website IEEE Spectrum, Mori himself explains his findings in mathematical terminology: “The mathematical term ‘monotonically increasing function’ describes a relation in which the function y = ƒ(x) increases continuously with the variable x. For example, as effort x grows, income y increases.” He likens this pattern to that of a mountain climber ascending a mountain, stating, “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.”
Deep in the Uncanny Valley, you can find humanoid robots such as Han, the interactive robot created by Hanson Robotics. According to an article published in the website Make Use Of, Han is fitted with some of the most advanced technology, which is—in theory—supposed to make him more ‘like us.’ “The system uses several cameras and microphones to transcribe speech and identify the people talking to it. Its face is articulated using 40 motors and the covering is made of Hanson Robotics’ proprietary flesh-rubber (“frubber”) material,” as described by the website. While one expects some miraculous event upon seeing Han in action, they are soon let down when they are instead subject to ‘Han: the eerily corpse-like humanoid.’ The creator of the YouTube channel Istebrak explained what exactly contributes to the ‘uncanniness’ of the robots in terms of design. She says, “Whenever you have realism and realistic skin on incorrect proportions, what you get is the uncanny.” That, amongst other factors, are what make these forms unsettling to us.
Another example of what dwells in the valley is Sophia, the latest creation of Hanson Robotics. As stated on the Hanson Robotics website, “(Sophia) is based off of Audrey Hepburn and company founder David Hanson’s wife.” An article on the CNBC website titled Could you fall in love with this robot? highlights the impressive technological features of Sophia: “Cameras inside her “eyes,” combined with computer algorithms, enable her to “see,” follow faces and appear to make eye contact and recognize individuals. A combination of Alphabet, Google Chrome voice recognition technology, and other tools enable Sophia to process speech, chat and get smarter over time.” A supplementary video included with the article features David Hanson asking Sophia questions about her aspirations, functions, and fears. All goes well for the first two minutes and five seconds—roughly—of the video, save for the fact that she spends 80 per cent of the time staring at the monitor with a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. The last 10 seconds are when things start to take a turn for the apocalyptic: Hanson nonchalantly asks Sophia if she has a desire to destroy humans, but he quickly laughs and asserts that his question was merely a joke. Much to his dismay, she replies, “Okay: I will destroy humans.” Nothing to laugh about now, is there Hanson?
We may assume that common opinion is that what Sophia says, what she does, and how she looks is obviously terrifying, but a very important concept to keep in mind is that of subjectivity; specifically, subjectivity of reactions. Not every robot that is intended to resemble humans will incite negative responses from actual human beings. On the same note, different people will provide different responses to the same stimuli. Emily Lee, a third-year management co-op specialist, was provided with two images to reflect upon. The first was a picture of the female protagonist in the animated film The Polar Express, and the second photo was of an unidentified female humanoid robot. “The CGI is pretty spot on for a 2004 film. It is pretty detailed in general, the patterns of her shirt, the hair decorations…From far away, I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference between it and a real person, but the lack of blemishes makes it more artificial.” Of the second photo, Lee found it easy to spot the difference.“This is really creepy…Something about her smile and hand gestures are really unnatural. Those eyes make me feel uneasy.”
When she was asked why she thinks the second photo generally makes people feel uneasy, she reflected upon the realism of the robot itself; or rather, the lack of realism. “I think the lack of humanistic features make them creepy. For example, there are no blemishes on their bodies, their proportions seem too perfect, and their faces look exactly the same on the left and right side.” Humans are naturally imperfect to some extent. The designs of uncanny robots fail in that they disregard the natural asymmetry of human bodies, which is characteristic to humanity.
Ashwinder Suden, a second-year philosophy specialist, who was shown the second image of the humanoid female, also commented on the aptness of the attempt to make the robot look human. “It’s deformed to the point that it’s almost silly; it looks like us, but is a poor imitation of us [human beings]. It would freak the shit out of me if I were in a horror movie or something.”
Marc Daniel Del Medico, a fifth-year double-major in anthropology and philosophy, was shown an image of Wall-E, the famous fictional robot that captured the hearts of many, alongside the creepy image of the humanoid female. “[The first one] is Wall-E, you can’t really get any cuter than that. As for the other one, it does give me an eerie feeling, but it doesn’t creep me out too much,” he commented. Medico was then urged to explain where he thought the creators went wrong in trying to make the robot appear human. “They messed up on the eyes; the eyes are the window to the soul. So, if you don’t get the eyes right, it’s going to look odd.”
In an anthropological sense, humans have evolved to avoid situations that are threatening, and the vaguely-human, sickly-looking robots hint at imminent threat.
Another factor that appears to contribute to the eeriness of uncanny humanoid robots is the context in which they are framed. Every conclusion–for lack of better words–that can be drawn from analysis of the topic is merely speculation. With such subjectivity clouding the topic, it comes as no surprise that questions form about why the Uncanny Valley is how it is; however, few people stick around long enough to figure out why what they’re watching doesn’t sit right with them. We don’t blame them…