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Robotics Hardware

The Uncanny Valley Explained 172

ColdWetDog writes "Scientists now believe they've figured out what causes the uncanny valley response. They compared functional MRI scans of volunteers watching two different types of videos: those showing human-appearing androids, and those showing the humans that the robots were created to mimic. 'The results suggest that the uneasiness we feel could be caused by a "perceptual mismatch between appearance and motion."' Basically, the brain seemed to react in a strongly negative manner when the robotic motions of the android didn't match its human-like appearance."
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The Uncanny Valley Explained

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  • Must have been a very uneasy time for society.
    • by Mashiki ( 184564 )

      I think you mean the 70's. It was a time of post-acid induced weirdness.

      • Replicate the experiment with the participants using illicit drugs?
      • by JordanL ( 886154 )
        It's kind of scary to realize that the "middle class" of today was largely either heavy drug users in their youth, or born to heavy drug users. It's no wonder the 20-somethings of the world think the world is fucked up... it kind of literally was.
        • Now there's an explanation for today's politics I can actually understand. What happens 15 years down the track when the middle/power group is the children of cocaine users?

          • by JordanL ( 886154 )
            I'm actually in the process of writing a book that touches on this theory of social evolution. Essentially that our technological advances have continued without pause, but have at different times in history introduced different chemical and social stimuli that disrupt the processes necessary to fully implement the practical use of that technology, giving us a concrete explanation for why younger people not only latch on to new technology quicker, but have a better understanding of it.

            This also implies t
  • Awesome! (Score:4, Funny)

    by damn_registrars ( 1103043 ) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @10:06PM (#36890482) Homepage Journal
    Finally, we see a front page reference to a graph that includes stuffed animals and zombies!
  • by joelsanda ( 619660 ) on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @10:07PM (#36890494) Homepage

    From the Wikipedia [wikimedia.org] article:

    The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of robotics and 3D computer animation, which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.

    That describes my reaction to watching politicians.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I think you are very close.

      Our brains have a lot of facilities to try to determine the status and motives of other people by analyzing fine grained information of movement, posture, voice tone/cadence, facial expressions, and eye motion. That doesn't kick in when looking at non humans. Only other people and especially strangers. With good enough animation it kicks in and everything is suddenly wrong. Same deal with a politician who isn't a professional actor (Like Reagan), you can tell he's not being real

      • I still think it comes down to disease. For thousands of years even what we could consider today minor diseases killed your ass VERY dead and if you get to close its too late. The jerky movements of bots remind me of the coughing shakes one gets when you've got a bad bug, so I frankly wouldn't be surprised if the most primitive part of our brains go "Looks wrong, might be sick, STAY AWAY!" because frankly that would be a trait most likely to be passed down because those that got too close? Well they didn't
      • you can tell he's not being real and trying to blow smoke up your butt. And that makes you edgy.

        Mind you, even a non-politician trying to blow smoke up my butt would produce the same edgy response.

        • Just blow it back. He'll not do it twice, especially if you had a good curry the night before.

      • That's why Sarah Palin and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford are so popular. Unlike most right wing politicians who know what they are saying is nonsense, they actually believe the right wing nonsense. Because people can tell subconsciously if politicians are acting ones that aren't are much more trusted, as long as they are telling the truthiness.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @10:07PM (#36890496)

    I don't care how weird they move; as long as she's got some big ol' funbags, I'll explore her uncanny valley any day!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    My immediate thoughts are that a humanoid who is moving in a consistently odd fashion may be ill, disabled, deformed, injured or under the effects of substance. It's probably not a surprise that people react negatively, especially when they look "almost" human.

    • Re:Illness (Score:4, Interesting)

      by orngjce223 ( 1505655 ) on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @10:23PM (#36890570)

      I fall somewhere on the autism spectrum (officially diagnosed, before someone jumps me for that).

      I don't experience the Uncanny Valley effect, and this is the probable evolutionary explanation for it that I've come up with. If it doesn't "look right", it might be a corpse instead of a dead human, or carrying a disease, both of which are possibilities that would explain why the response to Uncanny Valley is a flinch instead of curiosity.

      On the other hand, I've been told many times that I myself trigger the Uncanny Valley effect, by virtue of my behavior...

      • Our brains are normally good at picking up a lot of subtle nonverbal queues. Austic people tend to miss them more on a veried level.
        While the theory of keeping us away from corpses is a good one. However we don't get the same effect with animal (of different spieces) where many of those dangers are still there.

        I think it is the lack of non-verbal communication that makes people uncomfortable. It looks like a human, however I cannot judge it's state of mind. Thus you are afraid of it as it's actions are not

        • nonverbal cues


        • It's been found that people who've undergone Botox treatement are less empathic than people who haven't. It appears that we mimic other people's facial expressions to guage how they're feeling and understand them and we do this using the muscles in our faces, subtly tweaking and tesing them to match the facial expressions of the other - acting as them to understand them and match the expression with our own internal feelings that give rise to such facial expressions.

          When we see some dead-eyed CGI, we KNOW w

          • by plover ( 150551 ) *

            It's been found that people who've undergone Botox treatement are less empathic than people who haven't.

            I would suggest that rich and narcissistic people are already less empathic than ordinary people. The UC Berkley found that in general rich people are more selfish than poor people, [economist.com] and it takes a lot of disposable income to be able to afford Botox treatments. People who undergo Botox are also often doing so because they are concerned about their fading youthful appearance, a sign of narcissism, and narcissistic people are by definition more self-absorbed than others.

            So how could a study of Botox recipien

        • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )
          Depending on the situation, I think people can also have uncanny valley effects with regards to animals, because I've got an example sitting in my house. My father in law bought us a life-sized plush dog at one point, and it's definitely unsettling in its not-quite-lifelike nature, even as it sits motionless.

          I do suspect our sensitivity to animals is going to hinge a lot on familiarity. Someone who never spends any time around dogs might not feel the way I do about the plush, and I might not be able to t
          • by plover ( 150551 ) *

            The "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" [imdb.com] trailers being broadcast these days show CGI chimpanzees with near-human faces. Even though they're purporting to be animals, I find those images disturbingly deep in the uncanny valley. I probably won't be going to see that movie.

            I much preferred the mask and makeup of the 1970s movies. Even though those old actors don't look convincingly "real" in any meaningful sense, at least they don't put me off.

      • by joshuac ( 53492 )

        Total speculation, but during a time multiple rather-similar hominids were walking around I wonder if it would have served an anti-mating purpose for situations where the genetic difference may have been large enough to increase odds of hybrid (i.e. sterile) offspring.

      • by sFurbo ( 1361249 )
        It might be, but I think that explanation is somewhat superfluous. We know that missmatch of expectation and sensaes gives problems (motion sickness is a prime example), so why go any further to explain this? The brain tries to model the other human, and keeps failing, as it doesn't quite move in the right way.

        So, now we have two hypothesis (evolutionary versus expectation mismatch). I don't see data today that can speak for one or the other, and we already know that one is functional (though not in that a
  • Old News (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Pence128 ( 1389345 ) on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @10:16PM (#36890536)
    We knew this already. They're realistic enough to fool our brains into thinking human, but different enough that the "human" has something seriously wrong with it. That something might be contagious, so you get the "stay the hell away" signal. Imagine a zombie horde where all the zombies are replaced by normal people, but they still act like zombies. Still has the squick factor.
    • If this was true then people behaving oddly deliberately would be shunned, not payed huge sums of money to entertain us.

      Why does a human statue not frighten us? Mime's? Oh okay, I give you that one. People doing the robot? For that matter I am not uneasy if someone around me is sick and some (mothers) go straight into care mode.

      Might it be something far simpler? The Simpsons only trigger my "god this animation quality is crap" mode when the episode is bad. If the story is good, I don't care. R2-D2 never tri

      • The simple animalistic explanation for me fails to address all the times we have no issue whatsoever with things that are slightly off. After all, every time a woman puts on make-up should upset us, wears a bra (oh okay, that does upset me). All that causes "wrongness" in the picture but we don't care.

        That would only be true if you'd never seen a woman wearing a bra and make-up before. As we've all grown up with that, we consider it normal. By contrast, as a kid I found Japanese geishas on TV very creepy. They didn't walk right and their faces were painted and held rigid in a way that made it look like a mask

        • As evidence that the uncanny valley is learnt behaviour (not innate), just look at this baby's reaction [youtube.com] to an everyday occurrence. Other mums report similar reactions to coughs, sneezes, beards, clowns, etc...
      • For a good example of what it looks like when sub-par animation is used to tell a decent story, check out the movie Hoodwinked.

      • If this was true then people behaving oddly deliberately would be shunned, not payed huge sums of money to entertain us.

        We do both.

      • by Raenex ( 947668 )

        Why does a human statue not frighten us?

        Because it looks like a statue. It will startle you if you see it move when you thought it was just a statue, though. However, after that it's merely just a novelty that a person can stand still and look like a statue.

        People doing the robot?

        They look like a person pretending to be a robot. Why should it be scary?

        The Simpsons only trigger my "god this animation quality is crap" mode when the episode is bad.

        Noting crap animation is not the same as the "uncanny" feeling.

        How come the desk-lights from Pixar are perfectly understood by people but Final Fantasy Spirits Within failed?

        Because one looks like a light behaving in a cute fashion, and the other looks like a human that is not quite right. That's the fundamental premise of Uncanny

      • People behaving oddly generally are shunned in public. But when they're on a stage or screen, we expect them to behave out of the norm, so our brains understand that even though they're acting strange, they're really "normal" people. For some reason this makes me think of Andy Kaufman...
    • by Syberz ( 1170343 )

      Imagine a zombie horde where all the zombies are replaced by normal people, but they still act like zombies. Still has the squick factor.

      Well that explains why I'm uncomfortable around teenagers, thanks!

  • is when that future don't come as expected. We see a pattern, figure how it could continue, and if it don't, worries us, or at least call our attention. If that is what explains the uncanny valley, makes some sense. But what about things that surprises or marvels us? What about, i.e. moonwalking? Some extra factor must be taken into account.
    • by sFurbo ( 1361249 )
      Moonwalking and other marvels are on the other side of the uncanny valley: They keep breaking the rules. With your explanation of the uncanny valley, the effect would be greatest for something that seemed to follow the rules, and then broke them sometimes, then followed them for long enough for us to start expecting it to follow them, then broke them, etc.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @10:28PM (#36890606)

    As an Aspie who has dedicated a large proportion of my adult life trying to be accepted as "normal" by people, I can sympathise with the robots.

    When somebody smiles broadly at me, I have to "manually" trigger my (pretty natural-looking) smile, but there is a small delay before my returning smile kicks in. In that fraction of a second, the person smiling at me subconciously realises that something is not quite right, and their smile fades slightly.

    So I'll forever be associated with the notion that I am odd, weird, strange, whatever, because no matter how hard I try (and I'm a pretty good actor), I will never come close to having natural charisma. It's not all bad news though - I've built up a group of friends over the years who appreciate me despite my eccentricities, and I have got enough "game" to go out and have a reasonable chance of finding a new girlfriend on any given night. But it wasn't easy to get to that stage, and required a lot of introspection and acting skill.

    One way to escape the uncanny valley is to spend a while in a completely different culture, where people expect you to be different and strange, and do not read negative interpretations into tiny social cues. Asia is good.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Fellow Aspie here. Here's what childhood sounds like to somebody unknowingly living in the uncanny valley (or at least my childhood):

      "You're such a freak!"
      "Nobody likes you."
      "I bet you don't have any friends."
      "Ew, get away from me."

      • Fellow Aspie here. Here's what childhood sounds like to somebody unknowingly living in the uncanny valley (or at least my childhood):

        "You're such a freak!" "Nobody likes you." "I bet you don't have any friends." "Ew, get away from me."

        IIRC correctly I heard those exact things when a First Edition D&D Dungeon Master's Guide fell out of my locker in high school. I spent nearly all of U.S. History, Political Science and English classes designing dungeons for my friend's bemusement. We had desks that had a shelf under them. I could balance the DMG on that and my knees to reference the tables needed when building encounters.

    • by TWX ( 665546 )

      Become a television presenter, gameshow host, or some other kind of pro-active, always-taking-the-initiative kind of job. Hell, if you don't want to go into media, Sales or Marketing could also work, as one has to take the initiative all of the time. If you manage to remember names well then that would be an advantage in sales, and if you normally have some difficulty with subtle sarcasm, being able to discard or gloss over the comment made by someone else in your duties would probably actually be a bonus

      • by Lando ( 9348 )

        While acting can help overcome typical responses, I don't think that sales would be much of a position for me. I'm never sure what people around me are really feeling/thinking. What a lot of people have inborn, is a very learned skill for me. On the other hand, it's pretty easy to pick up people being untruthful around me whereas normal folks seem to fall hook line and sinker, not sure why that is, but to me the deception seems obvious.

        I can work a cocktail party if I'm trying to get something done, but

    • You know, if Aspberger's syndrome had been defined when Erving Goffman [wikipedia.org] was writing I think our understanding of the interaction you describe would be very different. I did my Master's Thesis on people with multiple disabilities that had at least one disability 'negatively' impacting 'normal' face-to-face interaction. It was informed heavily by symbolic interactionism [wikipedia.org].

      What I saw was that any disability could be 'overcome' in a face-to-face interaction in a public setting (a public bus, buying something at th

    • Hey, nice to see someone open about ASD who isn't a whiny internet shutin - Those guys have negatively stereotyped us to the point where I never talk about it any more. You raise an important point, which is that we are essentially learning how to win friends and influence people, not subconsciously as part of our character, but as a learned discipline. It scares me sometimes. Is this what sociopaths do also? I learn to smile and laugh with someone as they talk because I want to express the inner feelings t

      • by tixxit ( 1107127 )

        You raise an important point, which is that we are essentially learning how to win friends and influence people, not subconsciously as part of our character, but as a learned discipline.

        It's not subconscious for the normal folks either. Social skills are just as learned as any other. As a "normal" person, social situations still require a lot of work for me. What is subconscious, is our ability to pick up cues that you'd probably miss. During a conversation, there is always a part of my brain that is concerned about what is going on in everyone else's head, that is fed, in part, by the social cues picked up as well as being able empathize with them (predict how they are feeling). That part

      • by TheLink ( 130905 )

        You raise an important point, which is that we are essentially learning how to win friends and influence people, not subconsciously as part of our character, but as a learned discipline. It scares me sometimes. Is this what sociopaths do also?

        The main difference is the motive.

    • by TheLink ( 130905 )
      1) In case you're not already aware of it: are you smiling with your eyes as well? A smile is not just in the mouth.

      2) The "fading" might be normal. Many people don't normally hold their smiles for more than a second (when not posing or being a politician ;) ).

      3) From what I see most of the "normals" don't have much charisma either... So don't worry too much about it.
    • Living in Asia (Japan), I think I can say with some accuracy that it doesn't really help you escape, it just gives them something to blame your oddness on. It doesn't help you to be more attractive (although the automatic street cred of being an "exotic foreigner" can). Now your visual cues are even more off-track, which gives you a longer row to hoe. For instance: Westerners tend to frown more frequently (to show you're considering something seriously, for example), which may make them think you're angry.

  • by seifried ( 12921 ) on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @10:30PM (#36890616) Homepage

    Brain is hard wired to do a lot of things, some of which are: recognize other humans, read their body language and assess their mood/threat level. Your brain does this in fractions of a second. It's why you flinch if someone raises a hand while moving towards you suddenly.

    I suspect the brain's thought process goes something like this when it encounters something that has a semi-human but obviously not real human appearance: "oh something that looks a bit like a human but obviously isn't, ok let's figure out if it's a threat (is it showing teeth? is it bigger than me? etc.)".

    But when we enter uncanny valley territory I suspect the thought process goes like this "Oh wow that looks like another human, I wonder what they're intention is... HOLY S*IT BALLS IT'S NOT A HUMAN! Ok something obviously not human is trying very hard to look human. Sure there's probably a lot of innocent explanations but I can't think of one right away so I'm going to go with insanely dangerous predator trying to mask itself, Time to alert the tribe, kill it with pointy sticks and burn the corpse with fire.

    • I think you're on the money.

      The reaction is as if we have been tricked. The thing wants us to believe it is human, but we know it isn't.

      Suddenly, we become suspicious, and we "freak out" because our brain is telling us that the thing is not what it looks like - ie. that what our eyes are seeing is different to what our brain is telling us.

      I imagine there are a whole range of emotions triggered in quick succession, which is enough to cause panic in anyone.

      The android has tried to con us, and like you said,

      • The reaction is as if we have been tricked AND didn't want to be tricked.

        This explains the reaction between a cross-dressing male in a comedy situation and when we think we finally for the first time in our live gotten close to scoring!

        Like I said above, for me the uncanny reaction only occurs in entertainment when I am bored. Chewbacca never triggered it, Jar Jar did. Old Darth Vader good, new Darth Vader bad. Most of the acting in the new Star Wars movies triggered the "this ain't real" reaction but we do

    • kill it with pointy sticks and burn the corpse with fire.

      hey, get out of my head, seifried.

    • Brain also is probably advising you to neither fuck nor eat the defective/diseased creature, and to keep it away from your family.
    • What's really interesting is the relatively small degree of un-humanness which triggers the response. Tiny little things, like the number of milliseconds difference between a face's left and right eyes blinking cause the response.

      Meditate for a while on the evolutionary basis for having such a fine-tuned mechanism. There must have been times in our genetic past when our ancestors had to distinguish between humans and entities who looked and acted remarkably human but not quite. Is this a hedge against menta

      • by plover ( 150551 ) *

        Meditate for a while on the evolutionary basis for having such a fine-tuned mechanism

        OK, consider the reason why trophy-sized fish are often considered wily, and have reputations for not taking bait. A fish that old has seen and rejected dozens of bait fish before. Possibly it has seen a schoolmate strike an uncanny minnow, or even struck an oddly behaving meal itself and learned that a hook in the mouth hurts. The next one it sees moving wrong - AVOID!

        (It also explains why some people are much better fishermen than others. They've learned how to present the bait so that it looks natura

  • ....So, correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems to support the notion that we could rid ourselves of the uncanny valley if we only budgeted more for, and employed better and more sophisticated motion capture software in our 3d animations?

    • We could also try letting robotic synth-nannies raise our human children.

      Soon enough, they would learn to associate unnatural robotic movements with tenderness and nourishment. Or starve. Either way, the effect would eventually be suppressed.
    • by grumbel ( 592662 )

      Essentially, yes. The Uncanny effect is in very large part simply caused by sloppy/low-budget implementation of animation or rendering, it is not some mystical valley where you drop into if things get more realistic. A lot of the ugliness in facial motion capture for example is simply caused by inadequate capture. Unlike the body, where you have only a few limited joints to worry about, the face is full of muscle and skin movement and humans are very good at recognizing that. Thus putting a few markers on s

    • ....So, correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems to support the notion that we could rid ourselves of the uncanny valley if we only budgeted more for, and employed better and more sophisticated motion capture software in our 3d animations?

      That's looking at it the wrong way round. The real consequence is that we should simply revert to more "cartoony" characters in our animations. We run mocap at its limits, and at the moment the level of life-like detail on our models is too high relative to motion.

      Have you ever played Façade [interactivestory.net]? The 3D models were pretty simplistic, but the simple combination of eye, eyebrow and mouth movements was more expressive than modern texture-mapped, million-photo mocap faces.


  • by Swampash ( 1131503 ) on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @10:52PM (#36890720)

    The feeling of being creeped-out by a NON-moving humanoid.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    You know in nature there are plenty of cases where predators (and prey) act like things they are not in both appearance and behavior. When the actee detects unusual activity, it will react in a negative manner toward the actor.

    Perhaps this sort of instinctive reaction is holding over into this case, where the slight difference trigger a subconscious negative reaction that harkens back to this common situation of nature. The thing to take away from all this is that its likely something that will be very diff

  • ... scientists using MRI scans determined that fire is hot, people generally prefer the company of people who smile a lot, and the check isn't really in the mail.
  • by Jeremy Erwin ( 2054 ) on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @11:23PM (#36890858) Journal

    It's not everyday that both authors are cited in a neuroscience paper.

    In a predictive coding account of action perception, the android is not predictable--an agent with
    that appearance (human) would typically not move mechanically. When the nervous system is presented with ‘the thing that should not be’ [Lovecraft, 1984 (1936); Hetfield et al., 1986], a propagation of prediction error may occur in the APS. While we cannot state a conclusive or causal link between prediction error and the uncanny valley based on the present data, we suggest this framework may contribute to an explanation for the uncanny valley.

    Lovecraft, H.P. (1984 (1936)). The Shadow Over Innsmouth. In: Joshi, S.T., editor. The Dunwich Horror and Others. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House.
    Hetfield, J., Ulrich, L. Hammett, K. (1986). The Thing That Should Not Be. Master of Puppets, Electra Records. 12 inch Vinyl.

    Anyway, the full article is freely accessible [sayginlab.org]

    • by rotor ( 82928 )

      Made much less remarkable by the fact that "The Thing That Should Not Be" by Metallica is, in fact, based on Lovecraft.

  • Mimes (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Required Snark ( 1702878 ) on Tuesday July 26, 2011 @11:25PM (#36890864)
    This is why people hate them.
  • Wasn't it an evolutionary mechanism, where the non-human characteristics on something resembling a human triggers the idea in people that the thing in questions is a sick human and as such should be avoided?

    Would make perfect sense why the brain would react to the uncanny valley in that case. After all, avoiding sickness makes you survive longer.

  • There is nothing to explain here. There is no uncanny valley. The simple fact that robotics experts don't like to emphasize is that even the best machines available today completely suck at emulating humans. They can't walk like humans, don't have the facial expressions of humans, and in particular don't behave even remotely like humans. They also can't understand what you say in an everyday conversation and can't talk like humans. People find them creepy or amusing in the same way as they find bad animatio

  • There is a lot of work in Theatre about what makes acting feel real to the audience.

    For example, reading about Status and Status transactions (in the domain of Improv) is a huge eye openner about how we (humans) pick up a lot of cues subconsciously and what kind of cues are they.

    I suspect anthropomorphic androids will have to give out the right cues to be confortable for us, rather like an actor has to give out the right cues for a scene to feel right to the audience.

  • Basically, the brain seemed to negatively react like crazy

    Do decent writing skills still exist these days?

  • Sounds similar to the ability some folks have (usually women) of feeling uneasy around sociopaths. They generally fool most people, but sometimes the mind will see something (which we can't put our finger on) that warns you that something is wrong. A sociopath or an human-android could easily be a "wolf in sheeps clothing" and the brain wants to alert you. So, I don't know if its necessarily the same thing as trying to avoid someone who you think is sick, but more that you're subconsciously warning yourself
  • Is it just me, or do the annotations in the articles graph appear to indicate a heavy preponderance of mustaches in the uncanny valley? Perhaps they should use an arrow instead of a rotated brace symbol...

"For a male and female to live continuously together is... biologically speaking, an extremely unnatural condition." -- Robert Briffault