The Uncanny Valley

The uncanny valley applies to more than just robots… it also applies to humans. For some it is a life’s work to bridge that uncanny valley. On the way some people lose themselves, some lose others and some find a way to keep everything. Being human is considerably harder than many people think!

The “uncanny valley” is a term used to describe the feeling of horror humans have when creating an artificial human. In the classical sense, when a human sees a robot that is clearly artificial, such as Bender or C3P0, there is no expectation of near humanness, which allows for many design flaws or differences between the robot and humans to exist without it creating a negative reaction in humans. The closer to human the robot appears, the more humans react to the subtle differences that separate the robot from human, such as skin texture, sheen, behaviour and dialogue. When the robot becomes so close to human actions that it is indistinguishable from humans, other than an autopsy, then we stop reacting badly when meeting those robots.

The valley describes the graph of acceptability from clearly not human, and so ok, to close to human but not quite and definitely not okay, to close enough to human that it makes no difference.

The Uncanny Valley
The purple line indicates the degree of unease humans feel around non-humans

Artificial robotic humans are still quite a way off, so for a long time this was just a theory. Computer animators have found that this hypothesis is actually quite true. Consider the CGI (computer generated images) in movies. When humanoids are created, that is people that are clearly not human, but are human like, there is no real difference and people aren’t jarred out of the experience of the film. Most cartoon style animation is like this. While these are human representatives, or even non-human representatives, the difference is significant enough that deviations from human are ascribed to artistic license or style rather than “wrong”. When computer animation is overlaid with real life and it isn’t quite right, people are often jarred from the experience because “people just don’t move that way” or “that isn’t quite right” or “the light shouldn’t reflect/shade/behave that way”. This is the too close for comfort part of the valley, where our acceptance of the artificial drops. Speak to any animator and you will soon find out just how much effort it takes to replicate real. So much so that often it makes more sense to just composite real images together to make it more believable. Recent advances have made the animation so close to real that many people can no longer pick up computer enhancements. We have reached the other side of the valley, and people accept the artificial as okay again.

Well, that is all fine and good, but what happens when people deviate from behaving or looking “normal”?

Normal is such a value laden term. What is normal?  No one is normal, because normal is too minimalistic, such that the ideal of “normal” is actually abnormal to humans. “Normal” changes depending on geography, generation, and sub group. So what is normal? If we suggest that ‘This’ is normal, then everyone who is not ‘This’ is abnormal. That would mean that most people are not normal, defeating the definition.

Instead we should look at average. Not as in the midpoint of all people, but more like IQ (that is Intelligence Quotient). The average IQ is defined as 100. Let us refer to this as “Normal”. If you deviate from 100 by 1 point (99 or 101) you are still average. It is only when you deviate by 15 points that you are no longer average. So 85 to 115 is average. This captures most people.

The issue is how the “Average” person views those beyond the standard deviation. Using our IQ analogy, those who are 85 would not view 84 as a large difference. Those who are 116 would be viewed as quite outstanding by those someone at 85. So combining deviation from yourself and deviation from the average creates “abnormal” or different.

Each person is made up of behaviours and traits. When my traits deviate enough from your traits that it seems “wrong”, I believe that we encroach on the uncanny valley effect. You think that there is something wrong about me, whether you can spot it or not. This can make you suspicious.

If my behaviour is subtly different and wrong to what you expect from me, then from your perspective I am in error or faulty. One of my friends recently went into daylight fasting as part of her religious belief system. Most people around her in this country do not follow this system, so she is often met with surprise and occasional hostility when she demurely refuses food during daylight. This behaviour is alien enough to many that it seems wrong. Even worse, when the sun sets and she accepts food, some who accepted her polite refusal exclaimed loudly that it this made no sense and was all nonsense. Culturally speaking, this is perfectly normal behaviour for my friend, her family and her country of origin. Yet here it is unusual and elicited a negative behaviour.

Some of us struggle to react in the average way given our age, gender and culture. Our reactions must be within the acceptable parameters for tolerance or they risk eliciting a negative reaction from our so called peers. Several mechanisms that I have employed to evade this negative reaction are:
* Interact with people outside of my age range
* Interact with only the opposite gender
* Interact with people from different cultures

Each of these methods increases the gap from my culture and theirs, thus avoiding the uncanny valley.