Life With Alacrity

A blog on social software, collaboration, trust, security, privacy, and internet tools by Christopher Allen.

Robots Dancing in the Uncanny Valley, Knowledge Navigator and UI Design


At a recent unofficial gathering of Future Salon'ers, there was a discussion about a demonstration of four robots doing a japanese fan dance to music (I think it was seen at CES in Las Vegas last week). The remark was that it was vaguely disturbing because your intellect knows that they are just robots, but someplace deep in your brain you know that they are alive because of the way that they move.

There actually a wonderful web page on this topic, called The Uncanny Valley: Why Why are monster-movie zombies so horrifying and talking animals so fascinating? by Dave Bryant.

(Japanese roboticist Doctor Masahiro Mori) is not exactly a household name — but, for the speculative fiction community at least, he could prove to be an important one. The reason why can be summed up in a simple, strangely elegant phrase that translates into English as "the uncanny valley".

Though originally intended to provide an insight into human psychological reaction to robotic design, the concept expressed by this phrase is equally applicable to interactions with nearly any nonhuman entity. Stated simply, the idea is that if one were to plot emotional response against similarity to human appearance and movement, the curve is not a sure, steady upward trend. Instead, there is a peak shortly before one reaches a completely human "look"... but then a deep chasm plunges below neutrality into a strongly negative response before rebounding to a second peak where resemblance to humanity is complete.

The topic of the "Uncanny Valley" has also come up recently in a column by the movie critic Rodger Ebert, Gollum stuck in 'Uncanny Valley' of the 'Rings', where he answers a question from a reader "Should Andy Serkis, the actor of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, get an Oscar?" where Ebert states:

The genius of Gollum is that it seems like a convincingly real creature -- but not one we have ever seen before, so that its realism does not seem creepy except in the ordinary way. If Serkis brought Gollum to life, other artists fine-tuned the balance with the Uncanny Valley. So this is something other than a conventional performance, and should not compete against characters of a different nature. Perhaps a new category is called for? Beyond the Oscar of the Uncanniest Valley?
I believe that the "Uncanny Valley" also applies to a number of other successes and failures in computer interface design. We loved Apple's "Knowledge Navigator" video, but in practice avatar-based systems have not been successful as they become a turn-off. Witness Microsoft's "Bob" and even Word's Paperclip avatar. When we see a little personality, a little "aliveness", we want a lot more, or it becomes annoying and we turn it off. However, the more "dead" it is, we are willing to forgive a lot.

The "Uncanny Valley" also relates to my previous post Seven Fingers of the Hand, as part of the art of a circus is entering and leaving the valley. As a contortionist amazes you she is entering the Uncanny Valley. As the the clown amuses you he is entering the valley. When they come back to earth and join the others, they are human again.


URL: I think you may have slightly missed the meaning of the uncanny valley with your contortionist and clown theory. When the realisticness of a robot reaches a certain point, it reaches the uncanny valley and people suddenly feel extremely turned off to it. It seems grotesque and unnatural, not entertaining.

Sam Klink

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