Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Uncanny Valley

Here is what I hope to be the final draft of my article on the uncanny valley for The Cyborg Database.

The Uncanny Valley
by Nils Weedon

Please watch each of the following embedded videos and answer the questions regarding those videos.

After each video, have the follow questions each with a drop-down menu with the choices of the numbers 1-5:

On a scale of 1-5, 1 being 'very little' and 5 being 'extremely,' answer the following questions:
How uncomfortable did the subject make you feel?
How life-like was the subject?
How human-like was the subject?
How human-like do you believe the subject was intended to be?

After, the user clicks submit and both individual and total results are displayed for each subject.


If you answered 4 or 5 in regards to first question (“How uncomfortable did the subject make you feel?”) for any subject in the videos on the previous page, what you have just experienced was what has been dubbed The Uncanny Valley. The Uncanny Valley is a concept regarding the relationship between humans and machines first introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. However, the notion of the uncanny was first brought into popular thought by psychologist Sigmund Freud in his paper ”Das Unheimliche”. (I am aware that the uncanny was described by others before Freud, but for all intents and purposes he can be said to be the father of the current understanding of the phenomenon.) In the article, Freud posits a scenario in which one's feelings towards an object are conflicting; in one sense, the object is known and recognizable – familiar – while at the same instance one also feels that the object is not something one has seen – it is unfamiliar. This dissonance between emotions is what Freud calls the uncanny. [1]

The Uncanny

The uncanny can be any number of things: it can be returning to your hometown, only to find that many of the businesses and homes you grew up with have been sold, destroyed, or simply revamped; it can be meeting the relative of someone whom you know well; it can even simply be flying to some distant location and experiencing the sunset at a different hour. When we interact with some new stimulus, the first thing we do is to try and discern what it is that we already know about this thing from what we know about other things like it. Next, we attempt to classify the new thing, so that we may attempt to operate around it with some kind of certainty. Now, let us posit that of this new thing, one minute detail, one indiscriminate quality, is not what we expected – then the rules which we had previously ascribed to this thing no longer definitely hold. It's like tripping on a misplaced shoe in your own home. [1]

When you trip over a shoe in your house, what is the first thing you feel? Are you confused why the shoe was there? Do you rationalize that someone must have carelessly left it there and move on? No. You get angry. More so, you are angry at the shoe because it interrupted your previously familiar activity. Humans thrive on familiarity and predictability – without it we would not be able to operate at all, because at an elementary level even our concepts of cause and effect – that which allows us to do anything in this world with certainty – are governed by the simple fact that we have seen something happen so many times that we can only assume that it will happen again. [2] So yes, we do initially feel confused, but this confusion, the unfamiliarity, when linked with the original sense of the familiar, breeds anger, as does anything which people do not immediately understand.

The Uncanny Valley

Even since the 17th century, man's desire to replicate the human form with machines has been strong. In 1810, mechanist Henri Maillardet produced an automatous doll-like figure which not only utilized human-like movements but even wrote down poetry and drew pictures; it could almost be seen as a God-complex – man feels powerful and fearless in front of all but God, so he attempts to become God himself. [3]

How the concept of the uncanny relates to that of robotics should be obvious, but as always, it is the first person to name something, not discover it, who gets the credit. (Sir Isaac Newton wasn't the first person to discover gravity, he was merely the first one to properly conceptualize it.) In 1970, Masahiro Mori published his paper “The Uncanny Valley,” and thus coined the term. In the paper, Mori describes climbing a mountain. When climbing a mountain, the altitude of a climber does not uniformly change with regards to the climber's distance from the summit. He uses this example to illustrate a graph which displays non-direct relations between two variables: familiarity and human likeness. Mori posits that as the human likeness of a robot increases, so does one's familiarity with the robot, until the human likeness comes to a point where it, for lack of a better expression, hits too close to home, and familiarity suddenly drops. It is this point which he describes as the uncanny valley. [4]

The reason the uncanny valley exists is due to how we initially classify our subject. At the lower-end of human likeness, we are judging the robot as a robot, which is an unfamiliar class to begin with. Any human-like characteristics are noticed as an attempt to imitate the human form, and are thus welcome, and almost cute in some sense. It has always been said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” However, as one approaches the uncanny valley, the initial framework upon which the subject is judged changes – it ceases to be seen as a robot and is now viewed as a fellow living, breathing human being. Of course, imperfect, non-human-like qualities are still present, but now these are the attributes which stand out, as opposed to before where the human qualities were most apparent. Now, instead of being a robot imitating a human it is a human who is doing a bad job at being a human. Before what was the unfamiliar mocking the familiar is now something familiar with uncanny, unfamiliar aspects.

The Second Uncanny Valley

Mori's concept of the uncanny valley only applies to robots which are approaching human likeness – that is, at the far right of the graph, the subject in question is indistinguishable from an actual human. In our current society not only are robots becoming more human-like but humans are also becoming more robot-like, either in abilities or appearance. From this a new problem arises where humans could themselves become victim to the uncanny valley. This point is what Jamais Cascio has dubbed the second uncanny valley. Cascio proposes that as technology advances, a second uncanny valley could arise, with the second trough being at the point where transhuman-enhancements are both present and apparent. Instead of applying to adaptations like artificial limbs, where the aim is to emulate and restore human likeness as much as possible, the transhuman – or H+ – technologies aim to improve the abilities of the human body beyond what would normally be possible, be it eyesight, muscle strength, or cognition.

So long as these enhancements remain within a perceived norm of human behavior, a negative reaction is unlikely, but once individuals supplant normal human variety and become super-human, revulsion can be expected. This is exemplified in people's initial reactions to the cyborg collective known as “The Borg” in the Star Trek franchise, who bear extremely noticeable enhancing prosthetics, or the super-humanly strong cyborgs of the Terminator series. However, it can be hypothesized that once the technologies gain further distance from human norms, H+ individuals would cease to be judged on human levels and instead be regarded as separate entities altogether – this point is what has been dubbed posthuman, and it is here that familiarity rises once again towards acceptance and out of the second uncanny valley. [5]

However, one could argue that this second uncanny valley is actually our standard uncanny valley, shifted over. You see, the uncanny valley cannot be a static plot, as people's attitudes and what they are familiarly with are constantly in flux. Show one of the modern androids from the videos previously displayed to someone from the 17th century and he or she would surely be far more repulsed by the subject than someone from the 21st century. This effect can be seen throughout history. One example would be the existence of homosexuality is our culture. Fifty years ago, a man and a woman in a state of embrace was the norm; it was the familiar. A scene of two men in loving embrace would then obviously have elicited a feeling of unease and repulsion, even as it does for some today, but today that scene is far less repulsive (to the average person, there are still some idiots...) and is quickly becoming one which is readily accepted in society. The nature of the uncanny can and will change, and only time will tell whether in the studies of robotics or transhumanism if the uncanny valley presents a significant problem for the assimilation of new technologies into society.

Other Interesting Web Pages on The Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny Valley by Masahiro Mori
The Uncanny by Sigmund Freud
Subjective ratings of robot video clips for human likeness, familiarity, and eeriness: An exploration of the uncanny valley
Almost too Human and too Lifelike for Comfort - an uncanny valley research blog by Stephanie Lay
The Second Uncanny Valley by Jamais Cascio


1.Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.”
2.Hume, David. “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.”
3.Grenville, Bruce. “The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture.”
4.Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley.”
5.Cascio, James. “The Second Uncanny Valley.”

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