Why do we need robots to look human to be afraid of them?

he possible risks that the development of machines with artificial intelligence  can bring to humans haunt many people. This is reflected in the immense amount of works of fiction – whether in the movies , literature , games,  etc. – that deal with this subject: one day, machines can rebel against their creators and, when that day comes, the bug will catch everyone.

Thinking briefly about these stories, the vast majority of them put man in the sights of androids – robots  in the form of human beings – who, by making use of their artificial intelligence and the absence of “weaknesses” (both physical and emotional), decide to impose their domain on people, or, seeing from another point of view, to free themselves from human control.

This is what happens in films such as “The Terminator,” series  like “Westworld” and the PlayStation 4game  “Detroit: Become Human,” where robots posing as perfect human beings clash with real people in a series of reasons. Come to think of it, with so much that we already talk about artificial intelligence, it really gives fear.

robotRobots take center stage in “Westworld”

Fear of what?

But we can not forget stories with threats that involve devices with artificial intelligence, but that have nothing to do with the human format. That is, intelligent and malicious robots, but they are not androids.

Is there anything that causes us to have much more fear, fear, repulsion, discomfort – or as you prefer to call it – of robots that look like us

Among the more classic cases, we can remember the HAL-9000 from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” or even the machines from the “Matrix” trilogy. Although frightening, since the plot of the works makes us understand that these devices are dangerous, the human imaginary sees much more risk in androids, robots that have not only format, but human features.

There is something that causes us to be much more afraid, fearful, repulsed, discomfort – or as you prefer to call it – of robots that look like us. And the more similar, the more perfect, the scarier he ends up being. After all, do you know why we need robots to look human to be afraid of them? Or rather: what’s in androids that makes us feel … weird?

2001 a space odysseyThe artificial intelligence HAL-9000 has to be deactivated in order not to kill the crew of its ship in “2001: A Space Odyssey”

The Valley of Strangeness

Even in the 1970s, a Japanese robotics professor  named Masahiro Mori was able to identify this psychological phenomenon he called Bukimi in the Tani Gensho , something that can be translated into Portuguese as “Phenomenon of the Mysterious Valley.” This idea was taken to the Western world for the first time in 1978 in an American book that translated the name of the effect for Uncanny Valeyand, consequently, for Portuguese as Valley of Strangeness.

The Valley of Oddness is the hypothesis that human replicas that look almost, but not exactly, as real humans raise sinister feelings

In the field of aesthetics of philosophy, the Valley of Strangeness is the hypothesis that human replicas that look almost, but not exactly, as real human beings arouse sinister feelings and disgust (or strangeness) among observers. This “voucher” actually indicates a sudden drop in the affinity of the human observer with the replica, but which increases again as the similarity of the copy becomes even closer to the real human.

graphic is worth strangeThe graph shows some examples of human “replicas” and how we feel familiar about them in relation to how much they seem real

At the same time that Sophia is impressively realistic, it is still possible to see that she is just an android. That makes you fall in the Valley of Strangeness

This is for all kinds of human representations that seek extreme realism, such as dolls, 3D computer graphics models, mannequins and, of course, androids. According to Mori, the more a robot looks like a human, distancing itself from a machine form, people’s emotional response becomes increasingly positive and empathic to a point where it completely collapses, causing discomfort, and then back to to please as it approaches the perfect likeness.

To take the test, just watch the following video – this is Sophia robot, created by David Hanson, CEO of Hanson Robotics. At the same time that Sophia is impressively realistic, it is still possible to see that she is just an android. This causes you to fall into the Valley of Strangeness, feeling uncomfortable or frightened by the talking robot, making facial expressions and interacting with humans:

The expressions of surprise, anger, joy and others that Sophia does lead us to have a kind of cerebral pane, since it is clear to us that it is a robot, but at certain moments the expressions and the appearance of the android are of an impressive familiarity, causing us to be frightened or uncomfortable in interacting with Sophia.

Strange, but familiar. Familiar but strange

“The disturbing” is a psychological sense that something is strangely familiar rather than just mysterious or unknown

This familiarity can be understood through a psychological phenomenon that has only been linked to this effect by a coincidence. When the study of Masahiro Mori was translated into English for Jasia Reichardt’s book “Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction”, and the effect was named Uncanny Valley , it was immediately identified with the concept studied by Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud, who is called uncanny and is known in Portuguese as “the unsettling,” “unfamiliar” or “unsettling strangeness.”

“The disquieting” is a psychological sense that something is strangely familiar rather than just mysterious or unknown. The phenomenon can describe incidents, for example, where an everyday object or act is experienced in a disturbing, alienating or taboo context. This experience is accompanied by a discomforting effect and often leads to a total rejection of the object.

Why does it happen?

What nobody still knows right is the reason for this to happen. Although some people are immune to the effect, the vast majority of people feel the phenomenon to a greater or lesser degree, but it is there whenever we see the representation of something humanoid that comes close – but not quite – to reality.

The Strangeness Valley can happen on the border between an object being identified as nonhuman and human

Stephanie Lay, one of the greatest scholars in the area, says there are several – at least seven – explanations as to why this happens, but in her experience with the Valley of Strangeness she has shown that three of them are more plausible to explain the uncomfortable phenomenon.

According to Lay, the Valley of Strangeness can happen on the edge between an object being identified as nonhuman and human, that is, as soon as it reaches a level of reality where our brain starts to stop seeing it as something else and identifies it as being human, it is the hour that we fall in the valley. This theory was tested using dummies that had their faces changed gradually to a face of a real person. The valley was struck when the face came to be seen as that of a real person and not inanimate.

dummyRealistic, handsome mannequin, but … it bothers a little

The second theory shows that this phenomenon can be awakened when we are able to believe that almost human creatures can have a mind like ours. This was shown in a test where people felt nervous when they thought that androids before them could have certain kinds of sensory experiences.

This behavior can be linked to the actions of a psychopath, which would unconsciously cause us repulsion

Finally, there is the thesis that the phenomenon of the Valley of Strangeness is reached by people when there is a mismatch or lack of synchronicity in aspects of the creature that make it close to a real human, as when they demonstrate facial expressions in part serious, in part cheerful at the same time, or when they emit voice without a perfect synchrony of mouth movement etc. Stephanie Lay believes that this behavior can be linked to the actions of a psychopath, which would unconsciously cause us repulsion.

It’s very strange

Be that as it may, it is by this still unexplained phenomenon that we are uncomfortable with realistic androids, dolls, mannequins, and even ultra-CG CG designs – a conflict between contradictory impressions that are at the same time too human and obviously false.

If you have not yet understood what this phenomenon is called Valley of Strangeness, check out in the gallery below some images of human forms that approach reality, but not enough. How many of them make you uncomfortable?