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Cattle Rustlin' in the Uncanny Valley

By Chris Capps    9/29/09

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“Do you suppose she was human?” the line goes in Michael Crichton’s 1973 film “Westworld.”  The premise for the film is a theme park with the peculiar variable slogan “Where Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong.”  In it, people are dropped in the middle of a fantasy world where robots pose as other players in a role-playing type game.  The idea is, that robots are indistinguishable enough for humans that they will be able to suspend disbelief and act out their Wild West fantasies, and even fall in love and get married in the fantasy worlds for a mere $1,000 a day.  But will technology ever reach the level where this is possible?  Will robots ever resemble us so much that they could be mistaken for humans?

Don't hold your breath, according to the “Uncanny Valley” hypothesis, which dictates that there is a large valley in the proposed graph charting how humans would react to a creature that looked almost human, but not quite.  Introduced by Masahiro Mori, the theory is quite observable in reactions people have to finding a creepy facsimile hand unexpectedly, or even in the apprehension people had when computer graphics finally began to create near perfect human-like images rather than representations of what human appearance should be like.  The valley shows a steep decline shortly after humanoid robots of today, indicating as they get more advanced and more human-like there will be a strong aversion to them even if they are industrially practical.  The uncanny valley’s principles are based on several qualities of the human psyche, and can be as complex as the psyche itself.  As with any theory, more can be added to the list as more is understood about the nature of humanoid robots, but so far they include Mate Selection (stimulus-driven, automatic cognitive mechanism for the avoidance of selecting mates with traits that would inhibit reproduction), Mortality Salience (robots that look almost human are often described as ‘corpse-like’ and remind humans of death), pathogen avoidance (Unusual stimuli may be interpreted as defects that indicate disease and the more human looking the more communicable the unconscious will interpret this undefined disease), Violation of Human Norms (the more human it is, the more we will notice what makes it not human, while a cartoonish robot could generate empathy), and finally it could be interpreted as a threat to Western Constructions of human identity.  An example of the public’s reaction to the Uncanny Valley was the public’s negative reaction to Pixar’s 1988 film “Tin Toy,” where a disturbingly not-quite-human terrorizes its environment.

So how long until we see robots that could be mistaken for human?  It might be a while.  But in the mean-time, roboticists are creating more cartoon-like robots that elicit empathic responses from humans even while robotic toys come out to familiarize children with the idea of non-living entities to share our space with.  When robots are made to look like humans, there will be several new ideas that mankind will have to deal with, such as robotic cattle rustlers.

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