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December 11, 2003

Uncanny Valley

If like me you were unfamiliar with the phrase "uncanny valley", you can get a great introduction by reading this paper (pdf document) by Dave Bryant:

Stated simply, the idea is that if one were to plot emotional response against similarity to human appearance and movement, the curve is not a sure, steady upward trend. Instead, there is a peak shortly before one reaches a completely human "look" ... but then a deep chasm plunges below neutrality into a strong negative response before rebounding to a second peak where resemblance to humanity is complete.

If you get creeped out by zombie movies, or see a face in the fog on your bathroom mirror and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, Dr. Masahiro Mori would explain it this way: these are things which seem very human, but off-kilter, uncanny in a way the brain can't explain. Dr. Mori was a roboticist, interested in what made humanoid robots more effective. As it turns out, making them too human creeps people out, because they end up in the 'uncanny valley'.

The conclusion drawn by the good doctor is that designers of robots or prosthetics should not strive overly hard to duplicate human appearance, lest some seemingly minor flaw drop the hapless android or cyborg into the uncanny valley -- a fate to be dreaded by all concerned.

Posted by dpwakefield at December 11, 2003 09:03 PM