CREEPY CORNER: "Lady Dance in the Garden," Robots, and the "Uncanny Valley"

It takes more than a human face to put people at ease.
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Louise Hung
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It takes more than a human face to put people at ease.

You know who I hate? This "lady."

For the full effect, I highly recommend watching the video with the sound on. As disturbing as it is, how many times did you hit replay?

Welcome to the "uncanny valley." Come on in, your nightmare awaits. 

Alright, this spectacular dancing gal may not have been exactly what Masahiro Mori was talking about when he coined the term "uncanny valley" (or closer to the Japanese, "valley of eeriness") relating to robotic innovation. But when I think of uncanny valley, this video is one of the first things that pops into my head. (A close second is Polar Express...egads.)

She's obviously supposed to be human. She moves more or less like a human, has all the "components" of a human. We recognize her movements, and we have a rudimentary idea of her "emotional state." But it's all askew. 

And while maybe we can accept her body as dancing (as opposed to in the throes of death), her head is lifeless — I'd go so far as to say it looks "soulless." It's like watching a badly reanimated corpse. She is devoid of life. 

And yet, there's something about her behavior that communicates panic to me. Her ripped dress and wild movements put me on edge.

I have a theory that when watching almost anything, from puppies running across a field to undead corpse ladies getting jiggy with it in a static garden, we as humans need to comprehend some semblance of a story, or intent. The puppies are passionately pursuing play or running to a loving owner. They need something.

This lady does not seem driven by intent, but rather seems to be mindlessly throwing her body about — like a zombie. I think that's a big part of why she is frightening. In the dancing lady (and in other residents of the uncanny valley) we can't perceive a quintessential human need

From what I can deduce, as no great scholar of SCIENCE, human anatomy, psychology, or robotics, what we see in the video versus what our brain is trying to understand is incongruent. The dancing lady is too human, but also not human enough. The overwhelming feeling I get from this video is repulsion, on multiple levels. 

It's this mix of natural and unnatural human approximation that results in the uncanny valley. 

But what exactly is the "uncanny valley"?

In 1970, Mori wrote an essay in the Japanese journal Energy on how people would react to increasingly lifelike robots. Mori theorized that people's regard of robots would "abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion" as the machines gained an almost-human-but-not-quite appearance and/or way of moving.

Mori uncanny valley graph

Translated version of Mori's graph. Source, Creative Commons

Essentially we can have all the warm fuzzies for vaguely human creations like this quirky guy:

toyota robot in Toyota

Aww! He's got a little horn! Toyota robot, source Creative Commons.

But more human-like robots like Saya the Reception Robot, illicit a bit more of an "OH GOD WHY?" reaction. Watch her demonstrate "emotions" around 1:05. I'm not really sure what's happening with "angry." 

For me it's the robot's labor to put sorta-kinda emotions on a dead-eyed, gnarly-mouthed "face" that bothers me. Saya is one humanoid I wouldn't want to be locked into a department store with late at night ESPECIALLY if she came to life and attempted to sing and dance with me and her puppet friends.(Hocus pocus alimagocus? Today's Special reference? Anybody?)

Admittedly Saya is a little outdated. Since she debuted in 2009, advances have been made in robotics to try and combat the unease we have toward our robot friends. 

In July of this year, a Hotel Henn-na or "Weird" Hotel opened in Nagasaki, Japan. The hotel is staffed entirely by robots, some built to look eerily human. 

If you speak English, you deal with a dinosaur receptionist. You read that right, dinosaur. If you speak Japanese, you have the pleasure of checking in with an android receptionist who smiles...sort of. 

According to Phys.org part of Hotel Henn-na's aim is to build a bridge across the uncanny valley. The hotel's attempt is largely based on the success of Aiko, a receptionist who greeted customers at the Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi department store in Tokyo. While most people felt comfortable approaching Aiko, research indicates that it takes more than an accurately human face to put people at ease. 

It seems to be a very visceral, gut reaction. Either the robot doesn't look human but can display what we interpret as emotions, or it looks just like a human and can realistically show emotion. Empty eyes or a creepily slow smile don't do the trick. Jerky mannerisms are reminiscent of "Lady Dance in the Garden." 

"Hotel Henn Na claims it is looking to explore the elements that 'personify' hotels and to recreate that by using person-like entities," says Phys.org. 

They go on to say, "Our early research had observed that some of the eeriest and most unsettling near-human agents were those with exaggerated features, such as a 'cute' doll with dark, wide and blank eyes. Building on the idea of disturbing facial features, our more recent research looked at the role of emotions in the uncanny valley effect and considered whether that eeriness may actually be a result of those near-human faces being unable to present realistic emotional expressions."

The uncanny valley is really a case of the familiar "somehow rendered strange." 

As much as I'm fascinated by robotics innovation and dream of living in a world where Data and I can swap feline supplement recipes, I experience an intense discomfort with all things in the uncanny valley. 

I can't imagine tiptoeing down to the lobby of Hotel Henn-na in the middle of the night to get a soda from a fancy vending machine (it's Japan, OF COURSE there are fancy vending machines) and being confronted with an army of perky, unseeing-but-all-seeing, robots who are always waiting, ALWAYS READY. 

I guess what unnerves me is the understanding that there is no life there, despite visual cues telling me there should be life there. 

But I tend to have a low tolerance for doll-like figures. What about you?

What are your thoughts on robots? The uncanny valley? What near-human creations disturb you? And most importantly, did you watch Today's Special when you were a kid? 

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