A recent post in the New Scientist blog describes the phenomenon known as the Uncanny Valley – the place where a robot’s similarity to a human, without being actually exactly like a human, becomes unacceptable and downright unsettling. Apparently, we like our robots small and cute, like Wall E. I know I do.
The phrase was translated from the Japanese “bukimi no tani,” coined by Masahiro Mori of the Tokyo Institute of Technology back in 1970. Mori’s theory was that realistic robots remind us too much of corpses, and that most people would be terrified if a corpse suddenly sprang into life. This feeling may also extend to artificial limbs. The running blades of a ParaOlympian seem so much more sexy than if they were a realistic pair of pinkish, human, lookalike legs tacked onto someone’s torso, running a bit awkwardly.
So why do scientists still build robots that mimic humans? It is surely the emotional response that elicits the best human-robot interaction. I’m thinking of the Tamagotchi craze, where children would become inconsolable when their little black and white pixel creature ‘died’ in real time. Tamagotchis were banned in schools because of their disruptive power. However, robots these days are more likely to be designed in a human shape so that they fit into human working environments, but with a distinctly un-human facial appearance.
Read a more scholarly dissection of the concept by the University of Glasgow’s Frank Pollick in 2009 here.