Thursday, January 21, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: Uncanny Valley

Repliee Q2.Image via Wikipedia
Uncanny valley (n.) - A phenomenon which describes your feeling of discomfort when observing characters, objects, or images that appear almost, but not quite, human. Basically, the kind of icky you feel when catching a glimpse of a weirdly almost-human robot or cartoon character --something that's almost too human, but not quite there. The explicit term uncanny valley refers to a graph of human reaction to human-like images. As the images become more human, people become more comfortable with them. As the images approach a very near-human status, a valley appears in the reaction curve, one that abates once the images become all but indistinguishable from actual humans. It is generally assumed that the uncanny valley is an evolutionary aversion -- one that arose as a means of dissuading humans from interacting with the ill or recently dead (who often look slightly less than human). That, or it's nature's way of preparing us for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

I bring it up because: A recent Popular Mechanics article pointed out that there is virtually no scientific basis for the uncanny valley (hat tip to io9) despite the fact that science and science fiction have been casually invoking the term since the 1970s. While there is ample anecdotal evidence of the uncanny valley -- just ask anyone who has seen The Polar Express -- almost no formal research has ever been conducted into the incidence of, or mechanisms behind, the uncanny valley. That's a shame, as computer animation, particularly of the Avatar-esque 3D variety, is going to start pushing character designs right into the supposed uncanny valley. The Japanese also can't seem to stop themselves from building more and more (creepily) human-like robots, too. If mainstream media and consumer electronics are going to be heading that direction, it would be nice to know whether the public notion of the uncanny valley is mere conventional wisdom, or perhaps even erroneous pseudoscience. Somebody get the Skepchicks on this, stat!