Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Crossing the Uncanny Valley

As a writer of speculative fiction, the hypothesis of the uncanny valley is a very interesting topic.  It plays well into science fiction on a number of levels, as it delves into the human psyche and our emotional response to technology which has narrowed the gap toward humanity.

For those of you who haven't heard of the uncanny valley, it is from the fields of robotics and computer animation, and proposes there is a dip in the graph of human reaction from positive to negative, as a human replica approaches but not quite equals human likeness.  In layman's terms, the more something looks like a human, the more positively we react to it, right up until it looks almost but not quite human, in which case it now causes revulsion.

This graph shows that hypothesis:

Taking a look at the examples given, the graph appears to support the hypothesis.  Teddy bears are cute.  A zombie not so much.

But on the other hand, while zombies are much closer to human appearance, they signify many things that cause negative feelings.  They represent death, decay, a glimpse at a horrifying afterlife, all things which significantly impact our feelings toward them, no matter how cool and trendy they've become recently.

So let's look at something that doesn't represent those things.  Let's take a look at something actually designed to attract and cause positive feelings.

Let's meet an "actroid":

Now that's kind of freaky.  We're fully into the depths of revulsion that is the uncanny valley with her.  I don't know what kind of terrifying visions instantly raced through your head watching that, but if they're anything like mine, you definitely believe the validity of this hypothesis.  She's fascinating, and awesome, and inspiring, and a little bit of nightmare fuel.

As the technology develops, these actroids start to gain humanity, but still exhibit signs of that uncanny valley.  As we can see in this next video, filmed in 2008, spontaneous interaction with humans is far closer, but still has a ways to go:

It's not limited to robotics, either.  Cleverbot is a fascinating (and highly addictive) experiment with virtual intelligence.  Cleverbot interacts with you, responding with original "thought" to what you type into it.  It actually learns from interaction with humans, which is easily seen by asking it questions on socially popular topics.  Sometimes it seems you are interacting with a real human, but if you type long enough, the artificial intelligence will show through, sometimes sending you straight into that valley.

And that brings us to CGI, and the advances made in this field along these lines.  Let's meet Emily, a virtual intelligence made with computer graphics by Image Metrics:

She's almost perfect.  Very, very close to human, and in fact if you're not really looking for it you can easily mistake her for human.  Right up until that uncanny valley shows up and gives you subtle hints that something just isn't right with her.  You can't put your finger on it immediately, but it's there at the back of your mind.

Will we ever cross that uncanny valley with robotics, AI and CGI?  I'm certain we will.  The rate of technological advances is astounding, and is growing at an exponential rate.  I'm sure that in a few short years we'll be there, with this sort of AI interacting with us on a regular basis.  From search engines to GPS navigation systems to all kinds of interactive learning, the possibilities are endless.

For now, I think we're still in the valley, but we'll be coming out the other side before long.  And that's when things will start to get really scary.

Update:  I was asked by the fine folks at Curiosity Quills to do a follow-up piece to this post on the uncanny valley as it pertained to speculative fiction.  You can read it here on their blog.  It turned out well.  And by well, I mean it gives us a very chilling look at what could be a possible future for mankind.


  1. Thank you. There will be more to come on this topic in the future, I'm sure, as it's a topic that strikes near and dear to the heart of a science fiction writer.

  2. I've heard of this.

    Data from Star Trek isn't so creepy, but he is also clearly not human (also, he is fictional). The skin on that actoroid is more convincing than Data's skin.

  3. Great observation, Storytreasury. There are many different characters in science fiction film we can apply this to.

    However, while Data the character is not human, he is played by a human, and thus even in makeup, does not enter the creepy valley. The same would apply to other such characters, such as the other races in Star Trek.

    And while the skin on the actroid is more convincing than Data's (makeup-applied) skin, that's not what makes her creepy. It's the inhuman movements, the slight imperfections in the way the mouth moves, the slightly off-kilter mannerisms that give her that distinction. It's far more than just appearance, it's mannerisms. After all, human interaction is 90% non-verbal communication, and only 10% verbal.

    If we were to base our observations on movie examples, besides the obvious Tom Hanks in The Polar Express (who is downright scary at times), I'd say C3PO from Star Wars might be a better example. While he was also played by an actor, the metalic skin combined with hurky-jerky movements might put him into this valley.

    Of course, that's just my opinion, based on a hypothesis, but I think it's pretty accurate.

  4. C3PO would be a better example! Hadn't considered movements.

    Oh in case you don't recognize me - I followed the link from G+ where I am Sonia Lal. Wordpress doesn't let me use my name like that for reason.

  5. You know, I don't think it's going to be terribly long before androids do indeed cross that valley. I'd say with the advances we're seeing in those fields, five years for CGI perfection, 10-15 years for robotics, and maybe 20 for true indistinguishable AI. Maybe a lot shorter than that.

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