Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Not-So-Uncanny Valley

For those who haven't lost their souls to the time-sucks that are and TV Tropes, the uncanny valley may be a new term.  Created by roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, the uncanny valley describes a sudden, extremely negative reaction people feel when confronted with something that looks or moves in a very human fashion, but is clearly not human.  Generally, people feel comfortable with dolls or robots made to somewhat resemble human beings, such as everyone's favorite droid C3P0.  But imagine C3P0 with realistic, moving lips.  The idea makes him a lot less loveable.

For those who haven't experienced the valley for themselves, check out the following two music videos.  The first, Interpol's "Evil," features a very muppet-y puppet that moves as though he's on strings, but his facial expressions are extremely detailed and realistic.  The second, Daft Punk's "Technologic," displays a robot with very human eyes and teeth in a face that is clearly mechanical.

Now that you're all most likely unsettled, you may be wondering why I decided to interrupt your Sunday morning with not-quite zombies.  It's a question that's been twenty-two years in the making, though it's nothing I consciously realized until a few years ago, when I learned about the testing I'd undergone in elementary school.

I was not what could be described as a normal child.  "Weird," "freaky," "Antichrist," all of those were descriptors I heard more than once applied to myself during my childhood.  I never fit in with my classmates growing up, with me finding them impossible to relate to and a constant sense of sensory overload and with them finding me creepy and annoying.  I eventually learned to hide the "weirder" aspects of myself growing up, figuring I really was just a freak and I'd never be able to express myself the way I really felt outside a very small circle of friends and family.

Then, in high school, my mom informed me that during my elementary school days, when I would be pulled from my usual classroom to talk with the special education staff - what I assumed was a punishment for bad behavior in in class - I was actually being tested for a developmental disorder.  Apparently the staff at my elementary school was only equipped to diagnosis learning disorders, and as I had no cognitive delays, they couldn't tell my parents what was wrong with me, only that they knew something was.  Now, looking back at my life and the observations of my caregivers as I was growing up, I assume what's wrong is either an autism spectrum disorder or a pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.  Not to self-diagnose, mind you, and I should add that I'm currently taking steps to meet with professionals to see if I lie on the spectrum or not.

So what does this have to do with the uncanny valley?  Well, as I've learned while watching uncanny video after video, in search of high octane nightmare fuel, I don't have a sense of the valley.  Or rather, I do, but it's backward.  Robots, puppets, mannequins, badly animated cartoon characters, none of them frighten me.  In fact, my reaction toward them tends to be overwhelmingly positive.  While Youtube viewers were commenting on the unrealistic facial movements of Japan's latest robotic achievement, the Actroid, for example, I was watching the video with a massive smile spreading across my face every time one appeared on the Actroid.

The exaggerated movements and expressions of these creations, the features that make them so polarizing to a wide portion of their audience, serve to make them extremely appealing to me.  I know when the Actroid is happy, and I know when the puppet from Interpol is sad.  The only citizens of the uncanny valley that actually disturb me are those who have no facial expressions whatsoever, such as Boston Dynamics' Big Dog robot, which lacks a face entirely, and the Little Girl Giant parade puppet, who can only move her mouth.

Actual human beings, in contrast, I find extremely difficult to read.  In my freshman year of college, for research credit in my psychology class,  I took a survey online that involved looking at photographs of faces, selecting what emotion those faces felt, and how intense that emotion was.  The survey was much more difficult than I anticipated, as I not only had a hard time distinguishing between, say, disgust or sorrow, but I also found it near impossible to say how intensely the person was feeling something, especially knowing that these were all fake expressions posed for the survey to begin with.  Exaggerated creations are easy for me.  The subtleties of human interaction are not. I find it difficult even to point out wooden acting in a film, since subtle emotion and expressionless acting seem pretty much the same to me.

I googled "autism spectrum" and "uncanny valley" to see if I was alone in this line of thinking.  While I didn't find anything about the uncanny valley appealing to those with ASD, I did find an interesting discussion of how the autistic may serve as the uncanny valley to neurotypical people.  Traits often associated with autism - monotone, rigid speaking patterns, un-coordination, lack of eye contact, difficulty reading emotions - can be unsettling to others.  I found that especially intriguing, as all too often, "normal" people are the uncanny valley to me.

I'm not sure if any conclusion can be drawn from my musings, but if nothing else, I found those musings interesting enough to share them online.  Once one begins breaking down likes and dislikes in terms of exaggerated expression, everything can be dissected.  Do I like Lady Gaga so much because her costumes and music videos are so over the top?  Am I drawn to comic books because of the extremely visual style and obvious "good guy" and "bad guy" traits?   And most importantly, what can be learned from these sort of revelations?  Hopefully, something that can help "freaky" little kids like me to not feel so alienated while growing up.


  1. Actually, I like the puppet from Interpol's Evil. I have positive associations with things that are described as being in the Uncanny Valley. I find a simplified range of expressions and body language very reassuring, since rather than this indicating someone who is unreadable and therefore frightening, it suggests more that there is less to read, sometimes perhaps nothing at all, and therefore that the person can be taken at face value and befriended, since the risk of them having hidden ideas about harming you is much less. On another note, the jerky movements of the puppet are also far more familiar and less uncanny with frequent exposure. Where I live, drug use is fairly prevalent, and people who move like the puppet does are pretty common, including my own best friend whom I love dearly. Because of this, the thought that comes to mind is less "creepy walking corpse" and more "cool, sweet person who makes me very happy, and whom I worry about coming to harm."

  2. Actually, my Uncanny Valley response doesn't go off until a)the robot seems to actually be threatening, and then it is treated as a real though unpredictable and possibly dangerous person, or b)the robot appears to be injured, at which point it's more of a reaction to gore than anything else. It makes me uncomfortable to see something that appears to have been skinned, for instance.

  3. My Uncanny Valley response generally goes right out the window when the object in question is capable of talking coherently, no matter how deep into the Valley the thing or person in question might be. For me, that's enough to establish personhood and lift the thing in question fully out of the Valley.