Into the Uncanny Valley – Seed Magazine

This via Mind HacksSeed Magazine have published a piece by Joe Kloc, in which he looks at the relationship between humans and life-like robots, with regard to the so-called ‘uncanny valley’ effect, described here at Wikipedia:

(Masahiro) Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.[5]

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 a robot which is “almost human” will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathic response required for productive human-robot interaction

Readers will doubtless be familiar with such films as Blade Runner and AI – Artificial Intelligence, both of which address the hypothesized relationships between organic humans and their android equivalents in a technological future as yet only imagined – in both cases, the lines of identity become blurred; in Blade Runner, we have two androids, Deckard and Rachael who at first don’t even realise they aren’t human (although this isn’t clear in the narrated version as far as Deckard is concerned), in part due to the sophistication of the memories inserted into their circuitry, whilst AI , in a rework of Pinocchio, examines whether a human can emotionally bond with a robot that has been programmed to bond with them.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the linked article, which explains that it isn’t just humans who can spot a fake:

New findings published in PNAS this September are putting some long-overdue experimental rigor behind the uncanny valley. Last spring at Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute, Asif Ghazanfar developed a computer model of a macaque monkey designed to interact with real macaques. But the monkeys weren’t fooled. Further testing revealed that, much to Ghazanfar’s surprise, his model was eliciting an uncanny valley response from the monkeys. It was the first time scientists had ever observed such a response in a non-human species.

“By showing that monkeys can do it, several things become plausible,” Ghazanfar says. “One is that there is an evolutionary explanation for the uncanny valley and the other is that it is not something specific to our human, cultural experience.” These findings may for the first time allow scientists to go back through a century’s worth of peculiar ideas about the origins of the uncanny valley and begin putting them to the test.

Which begs the question as to whether a human would intuitively know that a robotic macaque wasn’t real, or a macaque that an android wasn’t really a human either, or whether one species is better at spotting  the fake than the other, and why that would be the case.

Reference is made to an essay, ‘The Uncanny’ by Sigmund Freud, with this commentary from the linked essay:

According to Freud, the phenomenon that would later be called the uncanny valley stems from a primitive attempt of humans to skirt death and secure our own immortality by creating copies of ourselves—such as wax figures and, later, life-like robots. He quotes his colleague Otto Rank in saying that this “doubling” behavior is “an energetic denial of the power of death” and suggests the idea of the immortal soul was the first double of the body.

Our uncanny response follows from the fact that most of us no longer believe we can secure our own immortality by making copies of ourselves, but we haven’t yet shaken the primitive habit of trying to do so. The sad consequence of this is that, in Freud’s words, “The double reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.” The copies we feel compelled to make only serve to remind us why we began making them in the first place: We are, inevitably, going to die.

About the earliest example of large size models of humans which evoke (in me) a sense of the uncanny in this regard would be the strange lime-plaster anthropomorphic statues from the Neolithic site of ‘Ain Ghazal, near Amman in modern-day Jordan, dated to around 8,500 years ago, whose exact function and meaning have been lost to us. An odd aspect of these is the way in which some statues are of two beings emerging from the same base, whilst others merely represent a lone individual. Although they were found cached in specifically prepared pits, they had been made with the intention of standing them up, though whether they were on public or private display is unknown, as is whether they were used on special ceremonial occasions or rituals, with regard for instance to mortuary practice, or merely formed a backdrop to daily life, is again, an open question.Obviously there’s a huge difference between the Neolithic statues and the human-like robots that technology allows to be made in the present,

Back to the linked article:

In the West, there is often a Frankensteinian stigma attached to artificial intelligence, but Mori offered Japan a much different perspective. In The Buddha in the Robot: A Robot Engineer’s Thoughts on Science and Religion, published in 1974, he wrote, “I believe robots have the Buddha-nature within them—that is, the potential for attaining Buddhahood.”

His ideas about religion and the uncanny valley have had a substantial influence on the development of Japanese robotics. “In Japan, there is a great sensitivity in the government for having people who are accepting of robotics and robots in general. Mori’s interpretation of the uncanny valley became a kind of dogma,” says Karl MacDorman, a roboticist at Indiana University. As a result, Japan spent the next few decades avoiding human-like robot designs.

It looks like being a good few decades or even centuries before technological advances allow humans to create robots that are sentient, and there are persistent doubts as to whether an analogue brain and consciousness can ever be replicated into binary code, or whether this is even a desirable or prudent goal to pursue.

The Uncanny Valley Masahiro Mori, 1970

2 thoughts on “Into the Uncanny Valley – Seed Magazine

  1. i wonder if the question that you raise is: can species identify the same of similar species as uncanny because of an evolutionairy effect kicking in. it is also worth considering that humans and i think, also animals use guise, ie. excrements to mimic a prey, such a guise would make the hunter seem more (smelly) then real. or convincingly real but uncanny. it might go with less observable detail to (eg. motionlessness, body attitude, sound , backgroundnoise, scents, direction and speed of movement, etc.) to test the uncanny effect with robots it is necessary to perform tests in wich the human does not know, and is not facilitated to find out (short interactions then) they are coping with a robot/ai. otherways stereotyping and rationalisation will provide an ‘uncanny’ that may be not as much instinctive as it is a social bias.

  2. amazing picture btw you put with it, really scaringly much like a robot, i expect it has to do with identical twins tho.

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