Also called “The Uncanny Valley“. If you know what this refers to you should feel proud of being a nerd, as I do. If this is the first time you read about this what you must know is that I am not really technical so this blog will not be about anything too hard to understand. Actually, it won’t be around robotics which is actually what the Uncanny Valley refers to: a dip in the response of subjects faced with almost-like robots, the dip representing rejection to almost-like-but-not-quite human robots. The initial concept and theory was developed by Professor Masahiro Mori around the ’70s. What it basically means is that when a robot resembles a human yet we can clearly see it’s a robot our natural reaction is rejection. This doesn’t happen when you can clearly identify a robot as a piece of metal and machinery, or when it’s so human-like you can empathize at some level with it. Creepy robots are the ones that scare us.
Here’s a quick representation that shows what the Uncanny Valley looks like when charted and the different grades of empathic responses to the different type of robots exposed.
Researchers around the world are studying the Uncanny Valley effect and not just in the field of Robotics. It’s been used to explain why certain films are so well received while others aren’t. Ultra-realism applied to a robot, which would show such robot as almost-but-not-quite human is almost destined to create a revulsion kind of effect in those watching, thus making such film less desirable to watch than others. The concept goes beyond movies of course and it can be applied to many things.
I believe that for example, we could use it to explain Technology adoption. What you felt when you saw the featured image of a humanoid (yet not quite human) robot face was a good example of the Uncanny Valley. That’s what I believe we feel when a certain Technology we don’t understand or control is presented to us. Of course it’s usually not just about consumer-grade Technology but rather the type that makes you wary, suspicious and eventually pushes you to reject it all together. The fact that we don’t or can’t understand it or control it makes such Technology dangerous to us. We perceive it as a threat not to one our senses but to our condition of unique individuals.
Complex Technology used to clone human cells of any kind is a good example. Regardless that it represents an incredible opportunity for the medical field, it also one of the most controversial and discussed approaches modern medicine has taken. Have you ever wondered why? It doesn’t matter if the response is rooted in deep religious believes or other sort of standards, the fact is that this Tech threatens our individuality: it proves that we can be copied, which is a direct attack to our own sense of uniqueness and existence and it defies all mysticism about our origin. It’s more radical than Evolution, which is still rejected sometimes. The more this Tech evolves, the more it approaches a recovery from the Uncanny Valley but it has to get to a certain point where cloning is not just plausible but safe, 100% controlled and effectively not a threat to any human’s individuality: we need to know we created it and we control it, not the other way round.
The Uncanny Valley refers to rejection, which is the first reaction before adoption, which is in return another way of saying adaptation. It’s importance as a concept is still being validated but more than 40 years after it’s postulation, it’s significance stays intact: we reject that which imitates something we know too well (like who we are, or how things are done) for as long as it imitates it.
I wonder then…what will happen when we are no longer imitated but rather, equaled?