Why We Are Unsettled by Robots That Look Too Realistic
The discomfort of technology too close to home.
Posted April 28, 2021
- Over the years, scientists have manufactured robots with humanlike features to assist in various domains including education and healthcare.
- Human-like features render robots more human, but increasing similarity produces feelings of “unease, eeriness, and revulsion,” research shows.
- Human replicas often provoke eerie perceptions, a phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley.”
- For now, most people are more comfortable with gadgets and machines that look like the mechanical objects they are.
In an age of artificial intelligence, there is an increasing number of tools and gadgets that speak to us, watch us, help us find our keys, and tell us about everything from the news to the weather. Most of these devices are little round objects, cameras, or simply voices on our smartphones. Although we give them names like “Siri” and “Alexa,” we generally don’t find them creepy or unnerving. All of that changes, however, when we give them a face.
Artificial Intelligence That Looks Real
Most of us are familiar with robot inventions that clean our pool or vacuum our floors. But as technology evolves, manufacturers have been able to create robots that resemble people. Here is where many people draw the line. They are comfortable speaking with and otherwise interacting with inanimate objects, but once you create a computer with whom they can make eye contact, you are laying down the plot of a horror movie, not making a helpful machine. Yet, believe it or not, this technology is not only possible, it is apparently profitable.
Talk about the extreme: A manufacturer in Sweden produces robot “clones” of dead partners.[i] Using what is described as “groundbreaking 3D modelling,” Lux Botics creates robots designed to resemble a loved one who has died. These robots are equipped with speech control, the capacity for facial recognition, and other artificial intelligence capabilities. The company shares that during the pandemic lockdown, when people had a hard time meeting new people or dating, the supplier Silicone Lovers experienced an “explosion in demand.” Lux Botics co-founder Louie Love recognizes that some people lost their partners due to Covid and “want a doll to aid with the grieving process.” He adds that it is “rewarding to be a part of that kind of healing process and know we're genuinely helping people.”
But if you could afford one of these “dolls” (they cost $5,000 to $10,000 plus an additional charge of $3,000 to $5,000 for the printing cost), would you buy one? For most people, the answer is a resounding “no.” In fact, most people would not buy a robot that resembled a human being regardless of the features, because of the eerie sense of unease. Research explains.
The Uncanny Valley
Shensheng Wang et al. (2020) explore some of the reasons that people view robots that are too realistic as creepy.[ii] They explain that human replicas often provoke eerie perceptions, a phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley.” They explored the foundations of this phenomenon through several experiments, including an examination of responses to perceived animacy of human, android, and mechanical-appearing robot faces. They found that related to the duration of exposure, perceived animacy decreased over time in android but not human or mechanical-looking robot faces. And manipulation of spatial frequency eliminated the measured decrease in perceived animacy of android faces, decreasing the perception of “uncanniness.”
Too Close to Real for Comfort
Wang et al. recognize that over the years, scientists have manufactured robots with human-like features to assist in various domains including education and healthcare. They note that while human features, such as a face, cause us to attribute minds to robots, there can be too much of a good thing. As they explain, although humanlike features render robots more human, increasing similarity produces feelings of “unease, eeriness, and revulsion,” creating the phenomenon of the uncanny valley.
Perhaps this is why animated dolls, mannequins, and children’s toys are more often characters in nightmares than neighbor’s houses, regardless of utility. For now, we are apparently more comfortable with gadgets and machines that look like the mechanical objects they are, instead of looking too much like one of us.
[ii] Wang, Shensheng, Yuk F. Cheong, Daniel D. Dilks, and Philippe Rochat. 2020. “The Uncanny Valley Phenomenon and the Temporal Dynamics of Face Animacy Perception.” Perception 49 (10): 1069–89. doi:10.1177/0301006620952611.