The Uncanny Valley
When looking at a robot we sometimes experience the “Uncanny valley” effect …
We feel an increased sense of affinity with a humanoid robot the more human it looks, but right before becoming indistinguishable from a human, we experience a sense of revulsion or dissociation.
We feel that something is wrong. We don’t have this with robots that don’t look like humans at all: Johnny 5, R2-D2, HAL 9000, or Wall-E, despite the fact that we certainly have an emotional response to them.
Yes, even to HAL! When Dave starts shutting HAL down, we hear HAL regressing while pleading with Dave to stop. When HAL says “I am afraid, Dave. My mind is going. I can feel it”, Dave reacts and responds emotionally to HAL, even trying to comfort him when he feels HAL is no longer a threat. On the other hand, some robots are so convincingly human that we forget they are robots at all, like D.A.R.Y.L. or Seven of Nine (technically a cyborg), “The Doctor” (technically a hologram), and Data from StarTrek.
We experience the uncanny valley specifically when a thing looks human enough that it invites an initial emotional response, while on closer inspection showing clear signs of being unable to reciprocate that: the CB2 child robot, Saya, HRP-4C, Sophia, etc.
Especially with movements and facial expressions, if they do not proceed smoothly and harmoniously, the whole Gestalt of human appearance breaks down: “small faults in their humanness might send the social interaction tumbling” (Mathur & Reichling 2016, 30). We are now repulsed by how alien the thing confronting us actually is. The uncanny valley effect occurs when we try to empathize with a robot: it cannot experience us as we experience them (Gray & Wegner 2012, 129). We cannot expect understanding or reciprocity from the robot: there is no “there” there. So we feel betrayed in our emotional response, the apparent humanity of the robot was just an empathic illusion.
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