The way human beings have ended up forming emotional and psychological bonds with inanimate objects is rather interesting. The Uncanny Valley is an affirmation of such relationships. But what exactly is it? That is the question we seek to address here.
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The background here lies in the resemblance that humanoid objects have to real human beings. It could be robots, love dolls, or even 3D computer animations. The stronger the resemblance, greater is the emotional response. Such a response could go in either direction, i.e., both positive and negative.
This concept was first identified back in 1970 by Japanese professor of robotics, Masahiro Mori. The term he coined in Japanese was “bukimi no tani genshō”. This ended up being translated as “Uncanny Valley” in Jasia Reichardt’s 1978 book, Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction.
The use of the word uncanny here eventually went on to have deeper implications drawn from much older theories and concepts. This includes Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” essay that he wrote back in 1919 as well as Ernst Jentsch’s 1906 essay “”On the Psychology of the Uncanny”.
The notion of Uncanny Valley is best understood when we comprehend the hypothesis behind it. Essentially, it theorizes that greater the resemblance of a humanoid object to real life human beings, better is the positive reaction to it.
At the same time, this occurs only up to a certain point. Beyond that, the reaction turns negative, to the extent of being repulsive.
Thus, the “Uncanny Valley” is the region of repulsive response to a robot or love doll, etc. when it lies somewhere between having a ‘completely human’ or a ‘partially human’ appearance.
There can be several instances of the Uncanny Valley. Robots are a perfect example. Yet, within them, you will find varying occurrences of the Uncanny Valley. An industrial robot for instance, is more likely to occur in this valley as opposed to a toy robot; the latter is expected to be cute and cuddly and thus evokes positive emotions and responses.
Love dolls are another prominent instance of the Uncanny Valley. Within them, the more realistic and attractive the design, lesser the chances of an Uncanny Valley response.
You might also recall movies that fall into this realm. Shrek is a very good example, especially the realistic character of Princess Fiona. The 2019 film Cats is also a good example, especially with its humanoid felines.
Some Uncanny Valley Dynamics
At this juncture, it would be appropriate to gauge some Uncanny Valley dynamics. For instance, not everyone is affected by it. Age does tend to play a role but not uniformly. Often, the older generation is seen to be impacted more. Yet, the younger lot can also share similar sentiments, especially those not exposed to robotics or AI.
Dealing with the Uncanny Valley
Given the extent to which Uncanny Valley is increasingly becoming commonplace, attempts are being made to deal with it.
Some initiatives include avoiding mixing together human and non-human elements. It has also been observed that avoiding conflicts between various appearances, behaviors, and abilities makes a positive impact.