As robots have evolved over the years, it appears that a major goal of their creators is to make them as human-like in appearance as possible. However, the more realistic a robot becomes the more humans seem to recoil from it, experiencing the same levels and fear and unease you would experience at the sight of a corpse. This phenomenon is known as the ‘Uncanny Valley’.
First identified by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, the ‘Uncanny Valley’ refers to the large drop in familiarity and comfort observed in humans the more human- like a robot’s appearance. Mori hypothesised that the more human-like a robot appears the more empathetic individuals will feel towards it, until the point where the machine looks more human than robot, but not identical. At this point the robot will still have non-human characteristics despite its appearance, leading to feelings of fear and discomfort in individuals, before developing greater familiarity again, as you would on a human to human level, as the robot becomes indistinguishable from a human being.
Obviously the last part of this hypothesis has yet to be confirmed, as engineers have yet to develop an indistinguishable robot. However the rest of ‘Uncanny Valley’ effect has been observed in many different situations and can be seen to have an extreme effect, with Christoph Bartneck, a robotics researcher at Canterbury University in New Zealand, describing the emotional effect as “more like a cliff” than a valley.
There are a number of reasons as to why this negative emotional effect occurs, many of them coming from our survival evolutions and our brains’ conflict in trying to perceive the technology. One explanation is our evolutionary instinct to avoid pathogens. When looking at a human-like robot, where the movements or appearance still appears unnatural, your brain subconsciously picks up on the faults and classifies it as a person with a disease, causing the fear as a que to move away, to avoid infection.
Another explanation is that being unable to tell if something is human is deeply unsettling, as your brain cannot decide if the being in front of you is friend or foe, leading to discomfort or fear. Finally there is an issue with perceptual conflict within the brain. When seeing another human parts of the visual cortex light up and send specific messages to the motor cortex and the mirror neurons which respond to any behaviour. With human-like robots the appearance often does not match the movements, which have yet to be made as natural as those of a human, leading to these signals being conflicted and creating a deep unease.
As the ‘Uncanny Valley’ phenomenon is caused by deep routed instincts within all of us, it probably won’t be disappearing anytime soon. However, with ever evolving technology, it may not prove an issue for much longer as engineers get closer to creating a robot that is indistinguishable from a human in any way, though that thought may be just as terrifying.