This episode of Zepelim is inspired by the Uncanny Valley, a term coined by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori that appeared for the first time in 1970 in the Journal Energy. The Uncanny Valley is one of the most intriguing and poetic concepts in the field of robotics in that it conveys an important message about how human beings interact and how we deal with the perception of the unfamiliar and death. In this show, Zepelim follows the curves of the Uncanny Valley chart, presenting a sound collage featuring sounds from industrial robots to humanoid robots and uncanny soundscapes.
Charting the Uncanny Valley
The Uncanny Valley describes a phenomenon that arises when we chart human likeness in relation to familiarity. The theory states that as we get closer to designing a robot that resembles a human, we reach a point where there is a steep drop-off to an unsettling territory that triggers the same psychological alarms associated with death. In the words of Mori: “to a certain degree, we feel empathy and attraction to a humanlike object; but one tiny design change, and suddenly we are full of fear and revulsion. That area is what I call the Uncanny Valley.” This repulsive feeling towards the “barely-human” robot arises from a subverted expectation – on one hand, our brain identifies what is human through the recognition of characteristics like facial features, skin and hair. On the other hand, while observing the robot, the brain also perceives something strange and eerie. Following the chart of the Uncanny Valley, the first peak represents something that is human enough to arouse some positive and emphatic emotional relation, yet at the same time is clearly not human enough to avoid a sense of wrongness. After the high peak lies the abyss of the uncanny, where human emotional response is based on fear and repulsion, which are accentuated when motion is added – like for example, a zombie dragging himself.
Mori took the term Uncanny from the essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” (‘Über die Psychologie des Unheimlichen’) written by the German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch in 1906, which explored the thought processes humans go through within the borderline that divides the familiar and the unfamiliar. Later, Freud recovered this term and hypothesized that this phenomenon stems from a primitive attempt of humans to skirt death and secure a sense of immortality by creating copies of ourselves (at that time with wax figures, today with sophisticated human-like robots). Freud quotes the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank in saying that “doubling behavior is an energetic denial of the power of death”. Freud ends to say that “the double reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.”
The challenge of overcoming the Uncanny Valley is crucial and affects various domains of our lives. The entertainment business would
definitely benefit from not having such an eerie Tom Hanks in Polar Express. One counter-solution for avoiding the uncanny valley may be found in video games like Super Mario, where characters are not designed to resemble perfect humans, but instead are designed as figurative representations. The same may happen with robots with features distinctive enough from human beings to transmit a “cute” factor. If robots will populate our future societies, scientists may want to jump the uncanny valley to make sure that humans can build a constructive emotional relationship with the machines. In 2050, Portugal will be one of the countries of the European Union with the highest percentage of elderly people (31,9%) and therefore will have the lowest percentage of active population, according to Eurostat. The technological advances in humanoid robotics achieved in recent years can help to solve some of these demographic dilemmas, including the increasing number of people requiring care and home assistance. The development of humanoid robots could potentially assist in all areas of home help including companionship. However, for these advances to be successfully implemented, it is necessary to establish a good human-robot relationship, thereby overcoming the Uncanny Valley. Recently, scientists from Geminoid Lab at Aalborg University have claimed that they have made an android that transcends the uncanny valley – the Geminoid-DK. See for yourself.