Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Uncanny Valley - Cognitive Dissonance and Meta-Communication

Uncanny:  Strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way

The uncanny is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange. 

Because the uncanny is familiar yet strange, it often creates
cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time.  
Just to be clear, cognitive dissonance is a condition of conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistency between one's beliefs and one's experience/actions - such as opposing the slaughter of animals and eating meat. 
Words closest to uncanny are eerie, spooky and creepy.

The concept of the uncanny valley was put forward by Masahiro Mori in 1970 (see also Energy, Vol 7(4), 33-35, 1970). Professor Mori was designing robots that were becoming more humanlike in appearance.  It is interesting to follow his reasoning about how the appearance of a robot influences the feeling of familiarity/empathy or otherwise in people.  

On one extreme are the industrial robots who do not have any specific shape and structure. They are designed to do a particular job - like welding car parts - and their presence hardly generate a reaction in us.  The familiarity is zero.  

The next stage is humanoid robots with shape like a human body with two hands, feet, eyes etc. but it is difficult to confuse them with a real human (ASIMO is a good example). They generate a feeling of curiosity and affection and are much more noticeable than an industrial robot. The familiarity is positive - we do not feel strange in their presence.  The familiarity increases further as robots become more humanlike but are different enough not to be confused with real persons.  
However, a point is reached when the robot might look like a human but have attributes that are definitely not humanlike.  For example, a robot's hand will feel hard and cold - nothing like the hand of a real human.  A prosthetic hand creates a feeling of strangeness or negative familiarity. Your mind is telling you that the robot is a human but then there are things about it that are not normal - this creates cognitive dissonance. 
Now, consider a robot that can imitate human facial expressions. Given a large enough number of muscles, the distortion and speed of the facial muscles and eye movement may be controlled to reproduce natural expressions of a human face.  Such  a robot will generate a lot of empathy as you are willing to accept that it might be like you. 

However, if the speed and/or movement of its facial and eye muscles is not synchronized, the robot will seem rather strange and we shall start to get an eerie feeling - negative familiarity.  It is a situation akin to somebody having a twitch in facial muscles and the feeling of unease it generates in others  - the empathy changes to unease - interestingly, only a small change is all that is needed. 
Another example is that of a corpse - humanlike in appearance but motionless and cold; and again generates a strange feeling of unease in people.

Essentially, familiarity increases as an inanimate object starts to acquire more human like attributes until it is almost humanlike when the familiarity takes a dip, but rises again when the object is very much like a human in both form and behaviour. This may be particularly so if we look at the robot from a distance when the small differences from a real human are not as noticeable.  The dip in familiarity can be sudden - Professor Mori called the dip the uncanny valley and expressed the situation as a hypothetical graph that is shown below.

The response is enhanced by movement.  A prosthetic hand feels strange to touch and hold.  But a moving prosthetic will definitely generate a stronger response. Think of a dead body that  for some reason shows sudden movement - this will generate a feeling of horror and revulsion.  The uncanny valley has rather steep sides. The uncanny works both ways.
The uncanny valley can also be created by photoshopped images, by people who have undergone unsuccessful plastic surgery or by discrepancies in voice and movement. Many movies incorporating animations failed at the box-office because the characters were depicted as humans but failed to display proper holistic human characteristics.
Is Uncanny Valley Real?  Many people have questioned if uncanny valley indeed exists or is it simply a hypothesis that sounds interesting but without substance?  To my mind uncanny valley does make sense as it resonates with my personal experience.  Mathur and Reichling have done a detailed scientific study and find convincing support for its existence. I show their results in the following two sides:

Monkeys sense uncanny valley too:  An interesting study with macaque monkeys was performed in Princeton University.  Monkeys are a social group and normally coo and smack their lips to engage each other.  In the experiment, when monkeys were shown the close-to-real images, they quickly avert their glances and appear frightened.  However, when asked to peer at the less-close-to-real faces or real faces, they viewed them more often and for longer periods.

Why does the uncanny valley exist?   

It really boils down to how humans communicate. All information include meta-communication - have cues about how a piece of information is meant to be interpreted - the same message accompanied by different meta-communication can mean something entirely different. 
Much of human communication is non-verbal - body language like facial expression, posture, hand movements play a big part too. In relation to verbal communication (spoken words), the paralinguistic properties (pitch, volume, intonations etc.) play an important role in human communications. Absence of meta-communication in speech disrupts the ability of the listener to interpret its full meaning appropriately; leaving a gap in communication from somebody who otherwise is expected to have this ability.  The uncanny valley effect is a manifestation of the hostility towards those who do not possess proper paralinguistic ability.

Cultural and social norms play an important role in meta-communications too.  These may accentuate the uncanny valley effect  further.  

The uncanny effect points us to understand how we can design robots that are more acceptable to a large section of the population.  Humanoid robots are here to stay - we encounter them frequently in movies and creative industry.  How they are depicted has been key to the success of particular offerings - the uncanny valley effect can explain the failure of many of these enterprises.  Better understanding of what causes the uncanny valley and how to avoid it is important for the progress in robotics and other fields.

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