Monday, 14 November 2011

Japanese robots!

Think of Japan, and you might visualize those demonstrations you see on TV of robotic vehicles, pets, appliances, humanoid servants, or practically anything that can be recast as an entity of circuitry and moving parts. Those images which could occur nowhere else, of constructs doubtless destined to become mainstays of every person's kitchens, living rooms and boardrooms within half a century, when robots will clean your furniture, wash your clothes, and spray machine fluid at you when you give them commands they don't like.

Robots like these:
This is Halluc II. It lives in the Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo's Odaiba district, where I got to watch its operator demonstrate the hundred ways it can nose a path across any terrain anywhere in the universe. I counted at least half a dozen methods of locomotion: rolling on its eight wheels, turning them ninety degrees and strutting like a caterpillar with a point to make, sliding in smooth diagonals – there seems no limit.

Halluc II makes pragmatism adorable. We might compare that with its robotic neighbour, 'Therapeutic Robot' Paro:
Built in the shape of a baby seal, Paro responds to your touch with fuzzy movements and high-pitched cries. Relaxing and soothing, as planned? I'm undecided: receptive to both its intended cuteness and my friend's misgivings that it was actually rather perturbing. Is there something not quite right about our good comrade Paro?
Masahiro Mori: 'The Uncanny Valley' (trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato): Energy 7(4), 1970.
In 1970, the pioneering roboticist Dr. Masahiro Mori advanced the notion of "uncanny valley": that as robots look and behave more like human beings, they look more appealing, familiar or cute to us – until a point where they are both so similar yet still so perceptibly unlike us, that this familiarity drops away into a disproportionate revulsion or even fear. The "valley" in question refers to the trench in the graph.

As the graph suggests by citing stuffed animals and zombies, this phenomenon is not restricted to robots. Unease towards clowns, the dead (whether animated or still), disturbing masks or enigmatic oddly-proportioned humanoids may attribute to their position in the valley, and lend to their frequent appearances in the horror genre. Nor need this be limited to human similarity: the same effect may be palpable with resemblance to other things we expect to be familiar or cute, such as animals. TVTropes even has an exhaustive directory of examples from all the creative arts and "real life".

Of course, the location or mere existence of the uncanny valley is subjective: not everyone responds as it suggests. Perhaps we all have different valleys: coulrophobia is as novel to those who've not heard of it as it's bloodcurdling to those who experience it. As for the dead, there's no reason they can't make amicable companions:


If you're familiar with World of Warcraft, consider the undead therein. Isn't there something construably cute about the way the ghouls gargle, and flail their arms left and right as they run? And the Abominations, monstrous golems created from many dead bodies sewn together to crush all in their path, and endowed with extremely limited intellect, evoke a simple joy at the world around them: especially when they go on adventures or are peculiarly tiny. If one can stand the ethical dilemmas, not to mention the smell, they'd likely be really easy to make friends with.

Is Paro the "baby seal" an unfortunate victim of the uncanny valley? If so, might he be helped out of it with some adjustments, perhaps to the pitch of his cry? Or is his potential to disturb a more fundamental burden? Dr. Masahiro Mori identified this concept as pivotal in robotics design: the line between attractive and alarming can be astonishingly abrupt, with tiny changes making the difference between public acceptance and mass dismay.

Writing in Japan, it's a topical example of the problem of social science. The uncanny valley troubles enough people that it's been identified as a social phenomenon, a general concept; yet has enough exceptions and conditionalities – such as certain strange persons who find ghouls can be cute – that it's nowhere near a universal "law", too subjective even to stand as a hypothesis, let alone a theory, in the proper scientific sense. Yet it's still fascinating and tangible, and through its effect in robots and so many technologies and creative arts, has implications for the quality of the human experience.

In my opinion, that's good enough. It doesn't have to aspire to universality or timelessness to be worth discussing, so long as we remember that it is far from absolute. Beware certainty, the scourge of humanity: even if most people are averse to looking into the valley, it doesn't mean there's something wrong with you if you're in the minority which is not.

And as with all phenomena in social science, remembering humility and foregoing certainty is to our advantage. If nothing else, the uncanny valley gives us an excuse to reflect on the targets of our disgust, and why we feel that way about them – because there are so many things we get disgusted by for no reason at all, feeding so many stereotypes and stigmas and prejudices and bigotries and purposeless suffering. Here again, social science encompasses not just what "is" but what "should be". It's high time we thought over our disgust, and asked ourselves just how much of it is actually warranted.

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