Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bridging the Uncanny Valley

On November 19th R. L. Howser blogged about how painful it was to watch a speaker use carefully prepared gestures that failed to connect with the audience. He titled it The Uncanny Valley, which is a term from robotics.

When we watch a robot behave, initially the more human-like it looks the more familiar it seems. But, at some point (when it looks like a human but still acts like a robot) our reaction reverses to it seeming unfamiliar and downright creepy. 

C.S. Lewis had Mr. Beaver say something similar in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (my italics):

“But in general, take my advice,
when you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now,
or ought to be human and isn’t,
you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.”

The following YouTube Video with James May’s reaction to a Gemenoid robot illustrates the problem.

What makes a human speaker seem inhuman? How can we bridge over the Uncanny Valley? In a November 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review on How to Become an Authentic Speaker, Nick Morgan revealed that trying to make our gestures conscious gets the timing wrong. The solution is to practice making them unconscious. That idea is described in detail in his 2009 book: Trust Me four steps to authenticity and charisma. Nick did a series of podcasts about the book, which I blogged about in August.

Human reactions to robots (and robot reactions to humans) are a running gag in the alternative universe envisioned by J. Jacques in his online comic strip Questionable Content (QC). He refers to them as AnthroPCs or AIs. A recent series, #1994 to #2010, chronicled Momo-tan going to the local Idoru dealer at a mall to get a new chassis. Two very curious signs on their wall read:

AJos 4.0.
The all-new artificial intelligence paradigm.
Guaranteed not to go insane
and kill your loved ones.


Make Your Robot Happy.
That isn’t a euphemism.

A more recent comic claimed that humans sometimes acted creepier than robots.

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