Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

The “Uncanny Valley” and Autism

Robot scientists have long known about “the uncanny valley” – a place between a real human face, and a cartoon robot one.

Cartoon-y robots that display basic human features, but keep it basic (or look like a funny animal) are accepted. But as you get too close to human, the like turns to disgust. We’ve had some recent examples of this effect – the Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within springs to mind, as do latter efforts like Beowulf and The Polar Express. But everyone likes talking trains, or walking french fry packs. The Uncanny Valley explains why current CGI characters are almost entirely humanoid “aliens” or “creatures” instead of virtual people.

A robot, even a primitive one like Electro, built for the 1939 World’s Fair, is not really scary – it’s as cool as any robot today:

Electro, the Westing Robot at the 1939 World's Fair


Here’s a YouTubevideo:

The popularity of zombies and vampires comes from the opposite direction – they embrace the Uncanny Valley.  They are “almost human”, but that little difference makes them monsters.

They keep trying to make humanoid robots in Japan which cross the “uncanny valley”. Unfortunately, every effort I’ve seen lands square in the middle of horror.

humanoid robot illustrating the horror of the uncanny valley


Even more awful – youtube video of a robot zombie:

My suggestion: Anyone trying to make a zombie movie should rent this robot. Instead of rice falling heedlessly from this metal puppet’s mouth, it could be brains.

I suppose robot fanatics, uber-futurists, and transhumanists try to tell themselves these things are cool. They’re not, and their uncritical, reality-denying boosterism of such electric puppets undermines their broader belief system. These things are horrible. They hardly inspire the rest of us to embrace a future full of them.

A recent PNAS article (cited at this link) demonstrated that the Uncanny Vally exists for non-human primates. It is something we acquire as we grow up and become social – very young infants don’t show the disgust seen with older children. So, this is not just our “prejudice”, and it won’t go away with the younger generation as they grow up with robots. It will take genetic engineering to eliminate the Uncanny Valley in humans.

But one of the most fascinating aspects of the Uncanny Valley is that artists can make images of robots, even strongly humanoid ones, that don’t disgust.  Rather than put one here, I suggest doing a Google search on “robot girl” or “robot boy” to see what I mean. Most images are erotic, but the fact that they are erotic means they overcome the Uncanny Valley. Apparently, artists can create images that, unlike photographic ones, don’t have that “dead” quality. Great photographers can do the same.

What’s interesting is that the Uncanny Valley doesn’t apply to the autistic. Observers of Second Life, the reference “Virtual World”, have noted that many of the most passionate members suffer Aspeger’s syndrome, a mild form of adult autism. Here’s a slide presentation on the topic, noting the potential for doing research on autism in virtual worlds:

Here’s an older article on the topic:

This article makes an interesting point about the difference between virtual worlds and standard games. In short, the non-repetitive interaction of a virtual world is better for autistics than the repetition of a game. Some might argue that it is true for everyone(!) :

Now, research is being done with deliberate “uncanny valley” puppets and autistic kids.

In this concept, a robot firmly in the uncanny valley is given as a playmate to autistics. The kids are nasty with the robots – initially doing stuff like trying to gouge their eyes out. But the robot does not provide negative feedback (!) from this behavior, and the autistic child soon changes their behavior in a more positive direction – after the robot demonstrates that the aggressive behavior “hurt” it.

But here’s my own take on the “uncanny valley”, tying it into Robots That Jump. The near-human robots look like dead people that are animated – in fact, they are zombies. In the image above, I immediately detected that the machine doesn’t care about how its hair looks – it is being styled by an outsider. The machine doesn’t know its hair is wrong, because it doesn’t have sensors and doesn’t react to its appearance.

The problem is that most robot designers and CGI artists focus on making their creature look as real as possible. The last part of the “uncanny valley” is behavior and movement – even the slight motions we see when a real person holds still for a portrait. Susan Sontag wrote a book on photography which mentions this effect. Nested deep in the political dribble (obviously my opinion) she described how photographs create “dead people”, since the highly realistic images aren’t aware of themselves, and can’t react to their surroundings. Timelessness, which is also true of “models” in CGI, and designed robots, is the root of the uncanny valley. It doesn’t bother very young children, who have not developed a model of others being aware of themselves. It doesn’t bother autistics as much, since they experience subtle behavior indicating self-awareness as complex data that they have to laboriously process.

The lesson for robot designers, is that behavior should come before appearance. Making a nasty humanlike puppet with herky-jerky motions is the source of the uncanny valley. Awareness of physical space is a must. Traditional puppets (rather than the metal monster puppets created by robot designers) don’t have this problem, since their operators infuse them with lifelike behavior – they feel as if they were alive, aware of themselves, and reacting to their surroundings.

Designers creating humanoid robots have put the cart before the horse – making them look good, with nothing inside. This is the exact description of an “undead” creature. Little wonder we hate them, and wonder at the Singularians who dream of being one of them, downloaded into immortal (clumsy) robot bodies.

I’d much prefer a cartoony Robot that Jumps to an anatomically-correct, lurching zombie sex-slave.


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