Is The "Uncanny Valley" Pseudoscience?

Illustration for article titled Is The Uncanny Valley Pseudoscience?

Are humans doomed to find humanoid robots creepy? The widely-accepted "uncanny valley" hypothesis proposes just that. But when Popular Mechanics did an investigative report on this influential theory, they discovered it's not based any scientific research.

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Popular Mechanics editor Erik Sofge writes:

Despite its fame, or because of it, the uncanny valley is one of the most misunderstood and untested theories in robotics. While researching this month's cover story ("Can Robots Be Trusted?" on stands now) about the challenges facing those who design social robots, we expected to spend weeks sifting through an exhaustive supply of data related to the uncanny valley-data that anchors the pervasive, but only loosely quantified sense of dread associated with robots. Instead, we found a theory in disarray. The uncanny valley is both surprisingly complex and, as a shorthand for anything related to robots, nearly useless.

At the heart of [Masahiro] Mori's proposed valley is a witch's brew of cognitive dissonance. It's the familiar colliding with the alien. Our primal instincts want to welcome the android into the pack, even while other evolutionary instincts tell us to bash its head with the nearest bone. As highly advanced human beings, we do neither-we stare wide-eyed, our brains sputter, and we leave comments on YouTube calling a robot "creepy."

Mori's paper sounds like a revelation, an academic's articulation of the robot creep factor that so many of us experience. It's a compelling argument. But from the skeptic's perspective, the uncanny valley is a surprisingly easy target: Throughout his entire career, Mori never presented data to support his proposed graph. "It's not a theory, it's not a fact, it's conjecture," says Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at MIT. "There's no detailed scientific evidence," she says. "It's an intuitive thing."

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In other words, we have no idea whether people will always find humanoid bots "creepy" or if we'll get used to them once they're ubiquitous. I wonder if, 200 years in the future, people will study the theory of the uncanny valley the way people today study quaint theories about superior and inferior races from the nineteenth century?

via Popular Mechanics

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DISCUSSION

Dr Emilio Lizardo

I'm not sure I see the point of his argument. The "uncanny Valley" is a product of sociology, psychology or some similar "soft" science and as such is difficult if not impossible to quantify. Anybody who has seen a close-to-human robot and felt uneasy rather than interested in or fooled by the technology can tell you the valley exists. It will be in different places for different people depending on their perceptiveness and interest in technology. Of course the chart is just a visual aid, not hard data. Some cynics (mostly "hard" scientists) will call any of these sciences pseudoscience but that is more a matter of semantics or superiority complexes than anything else. I suppose it could be called pseudoscience since it could be tested by showing people robots and asking how they feel about them. It may be better to call it an hypothesis instead of pseudoscience.

Additionally, Annalee, your comment that the valley may move in 200 years is wrong. The valley will undoubtedly move, as will all observations based on the soft sciences. Americans views on morality, sex and so many other things have changed in a matter of years or decades, much less centuries.