3 things to know about the Uncanny Valley

With the already cult classic movie Ex Machina recently causing a stir of interest in the creepy aspect of robotics, here are 3 things everyone should know about the Uncanny Valley.

1 – Definition

The Uncanny Valley is a Psychology term, not a geological place.  The term defines the sense of eeriness that a human experiences when she sees a robot that looks very similar, but not quite the same, to a human.


A Bunraku puppet is an example of something that triggers the Uncanny Valley.


2 – Short History

The concept of the “uncanny” was conceived much before modern robotics.  First coined by Ernst Jentsch in his 1906 essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny“, the term was then fleshed out as something that is strangely familiar by Freud in his essay “The Uncanny.”

The first person to apply uncanny psychology to robotics was professor Masahiro Mori in 1970.  He wrote exclusively in Japanese, so the now-famous translation to “Uncanny Valley” did not occur until the 1978 book Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction, written by Jasia Reichardt.  Ironically, Reichardt did not know about the work of Jentsch or Freud at the time.  The term has now entered the modern lexicon.

Roboticist Masahiro Mori wrote the book “Bukimi No Tani,” coining the term Uncanny Valley in Japanese.  (Illustration: Bernd Schifferdecker)

3 – Avoiding the Valley

There are some design principles used to avoid the valley.  For example, one thing to avoid is combining human and non-human elements.  Robots with a human face, but shiny stainless steel body, are likely to make people uncomfortable.  Another design principles is to match appearance and behavior.  If you see a robot that looks like an appliance, you don’t expect it to have human-like behavior.  If a toaster begins speaking to you  realistically, you’re pretty likely to be freaked out.  This runs the other way, too.  Robots that look like humans but can’t walk and talk are uncanny.

“Hello sir, here’s the toast you ordered!  How about that weather we’re having?”

As the field of robotics advances rapidly, humankind will be faced with one ultimate question – is it a good idea to make robots so clearly in our image after all?


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