The Uncanny Valley, a fascinating psychological phenomenon

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Have you ever looked at a picture or movie and felt uneasy because the character didn’t quite look like they should have? If the answer is yes, then you might have experienced the Uncanny Valley.  This neurologic phenomenon has puzzled scientists for decades.

Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor, described this occurrence in 1978. He observed that androids provoked eeriness when they looked very human-like. In other words, ‘the uncanny valley means that an entity appearing almost human will risk eliciting cold, eerie feelings in viewers’(source).

A non-human character with human features generates empathy, such as Wall-E, with its big, expressive eyes; still, the viewer classifies it as a robot. In contrast, when he sees a very realistic android, he could believe that it’s a human. But when it walks with jerky moves, he immediately understands that something’s wrong with it. The conflict between previous experience and the current stimuli – i.e. the fact that something that looks human doesn’t act like one – triggers dread.

The Uncanny Valley isn’t a generalized phenomenon. It depends on brain structure, mental processes, culture, and previous experience. Moreover, the uncanny valley also manifests regarding animal-but-not-really depictions. Scientists believe that the younger generations are less likely to experience it.  They are more exposed to androids, CGI, thus being desensitized to this type of stimuli.

What causes this psychological phenomenon?

A few theories state that the uncanny valley is an evolutionary trait that helps humans avoid disease and death. Sick people look and act differently in terms of eating habits, movement, and speech. Let’s take rabies as an example: the main symptoms include insomnia, hallucinations, abnormal aspect, and behavior. The theory states that humans have learned to read these signs and avoided them – an instinct that might have survived until nowadays.

In order to discover the neural mechanisms responsible for the uncanny valley, Dr Rosenthal-von der Pütten et al.(2019) conducted a study on 21 healthy subjects. They had to rate four categories of stimuli (artificial humans, android robots, humanoid robots, and mechanic robots) based on human-likeness, likability, and familiarity. It turned out that people rated the more human-like robots as likeable, but only up to a point. Even though the artificial humans were visually appealing and familiar, the likability ratings were lower than expected based on their rated human-likeness. Moreover, the fMRI showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex and in the amygdala during the experiment. Thus, this study proves that this psychological phenomenon has a neurologic origin.

Popular Examples of Uncanny Valley

Meet Sophia, the first robot citizen, and the United Nations AI ambassador. She was designed to adapt to human behavior on the spot, thus becoming a conversation partner. While this is an improvement from the non-verbal robots or the ones with a limited vocal register, Sophia still falls into the Uncanny Valley. The way she smiles and blinks seems a bit off to me.

Some movie CGI effects fall into the Uncanny Valley because they fail to pass as credible characters. The early Sonic the Hedgehog model scandalized the fans. The backlash made the animators reconsider their design choices.

The younger version of Will Smith’s character from Gemini Man was weird in its own account. The static face was somewhat credible, but the illusion faded whenever the CGI model spoke.

And let’s not forget about the creepy baby from Twilight. No, I’m not talking about the horrible puppet they gave up on, but about the model they used. Again, the smoothness and immobility of the face made the viewers feel uneasy.

Do I need to bring up the 2019 Cats musical? Critics and viewers alike hated it because the mix of feline and human features was too much to bear.

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There is still a lot to learn about this eerie psychological phenomenon. Do atypical brains process it as well? Will the uncanny valley disappear as we enter the era of artificial humans? Until then, I invite you to delve further into the mysteries of the human mind by reading this article.

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