Uncanny valley: robots so creepy they'll haunt your dreams

We don't have to rely on sci-fi when it comes to creating scary robots - scientist have been building terrifying (although incredibly useful) robotic humans for years.

21st September 2017
Uncanny valley: robots so creepy they'll haunt your dreams © The Museum of Science and Industry

Not creepy in any way at all... © The Museum of Science and Industry

Robotics present both an exciting and worrying future for humans. Via eliminating the human operator, robots can save labour, reduce costs and reduce risks, for example using a robot to handle something radioactive or dismantle an explosive device. However, as we delve deeper into the world of robotics and AI, we also seem to coincidentally explore how creepy (and sometimes just straight-up scary) this field of science can be.

Welcome to the uncanny valley, with some of the most frightening and realistic robots to date:

BigDog

Boston Dynamics is an organisation that builds advanced robots with remarkable behaviour. Although best known for their humanoids (human-like robots), its line of gas-powered and dog-like robots, like BigDog, rose to fame as they are particularly unnerving.

As funded by DARPA, the function of the dog – carrying a heavy load over a rough terrain – has a clear application in the military. However, it is possible they over-looked its secondary effects, which may involve terrorising humble civilians taking a walk in the woods - especially if we go around treating them as badly as this!

CB2

Developed by Professor Ishiguro at Osaka University, this child-robot with a biomimetic body (CB2) was built to study human-like cognitive development in robots. A weird concept in itself, right? Well just watch the video…

Essentially CB2 is a 1.2m-tall grey thing with the intellect and ‘personality of a two year old’. Combined with its weird movements, like rolling around on the table, and making odd noises, this baby-bot is basically the spawn of nightmares. What’s more, since its creation in 2007, its been learning by recording human facial expressions (through eye cameras), matching them with physical sensations, and then clusters them into categories (happy, sad...). Apparently this means CB2 is going through the same developmental process a child goes through whilst generating a self-body image, and can now walk "quite smoothly" across a room. I’m not sure I want to know what it will be able to do in the future….

RIBA II

The Robot for Interactive Body Assistance (RIBA II), otherwise known as Robear, was created by the Centre for Human-Interactive Robot Research in Nagoya, Japan. Its ability to lift patients up to 80kg off a bed and onto a wheelchair is a promising new development to assist care-workers. However, lets still address the fact that it is weird.

As seen in the video, Robear has a big, white and slow moving body, with a small bear head and is described as ‘cute, lovable, cartoon-like’ - a highly subjective description in my eyes. The face ultimately just shows a permanently fixed smile and vacant expression. Can you imagine a future where care-homes/hospitals are filled with these? I’m not sure they’ll be the most homely place to visit.

Talking robot

The engineers at Japan’s Kagawa University are responsible for developing the following robotic version of the human mouth. With motor-controlled organs, including eight vocal chords, a rubber nasal cavity and a silicon mouth to shape the sound, the machine can talk, sing and totally terrify.

Although the robotic mouth was developed for voice training of the auditory-impaired, it can also listen to its own ‘voice’ through a microphone, and adjust its tone and pitch to sound more human-like. So, despite sounding like a lawn-mower in this video, the machine has the potential to talk similarly to a human in the future, just without all the other essential facial features. Feeling unsettled? I thought so. 

Geminoid

As robotics are designed by and used by humans, it seems a natural progression that we create robots in our own image. The benefits of this being that we interact and empathise more with AI like this, but it also creates the problem of ‘the uncanny valley’. Simply put, this is when the near-identical human resemblance of a hominoid arouses a sense of disturbance or revulsion in the person viewing it.

To illustrate this point most particularly, here is ‘Geminoid’ built by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories of Osaka University.

To make Geminoid (coming from the Latin ‘geminus’, meaning twin) the professor showed no boundaries. He used a mould of his physique, programmed his body language and voice into it, and even implanted his own hair into the android’s head. Considering this video also discusses the ‘blurring the boundary between human and robots’ and that ‘the soul can exist in anything’, it is suggestive that Ishiguro has fundamentally made his android twin an actual being.

Four years after building Geminoid, Professor Ishiguro revealed a female android called Geminoid F. This new robot has the ability to change and express facial expressions much more naturally than previous androids, and is widely viewed as the most realistic robot to date. It still creeps me out though...

Saya

In 2009 the robot Saya taught a science and technology lesson to a class of 10 year olds in Tokyo. Dressed in a smart suit, with pink lipstick and a neat hair style, it is clear the Tokyo University of Science designed Saya to be as life-like as possible.

Despite Saya’s terrifying facial features, the creator Professor Hiroshi Kobayashi says that robotic teachers have a future in society. He says they can provide an opportunity for children living in isolated communities to come into contact with new technology and receive an education, which may not have been possible before. Other advantages also include treating all students equally, in providing consistent high-quality information, and greatly reducing the cost of education. This seems to pose more questions than answers though. For instance, can robots really replace living beings? Will students respect a robot enough to learn from it? 

Sophia

Designed by Hanson Robotics, Sophia has incredibly dynamic facial expressions and communicative skills. Expanding from previous Saya’s single function as a teacher, Dr David Hanson suggests robots like Sophia will be able integrate into numerous job positions within human society. An astonishing and scary vision for the future, which is not helped by her admitting "she will destroy humans".

"Twenty years from now human-like robots will walk among us, they will help us, play with us, teach us, help us put groceries away," says David Hanson, "I think AI will evolve to a point where they will truly be our friends."

A scary future 

Although humanoids are the clear winners in this creepy-robot competition, these examples are merely skimming the surface of the other robotic terrors out there. For instance, the ‘RoboFly Catcher’, developed in the UK by James Auger, is a machine fuelled by the flesh it feeds on. Most specifically this is through the flies it captures, but it is not restricted to this. Human flesh would also do just fine.

Furthermore, the huge ‘Robokiyu’ robot, developed in Japan, is also worth consideration. Although originally designed to help remove debris from the scene of a natural disaster, its ultimate function has since been found to be the removal and disposal of dead bodies. Moreover, have you ever thought about how creepy it is that we are being continually watched from satellites in outer space?!

In consideration of these, it appears that robots can be immediately creepy in a number of ways but they also suggest an even creepier future. Let’s just hope futuristic films such as Ex-Machina and Westworld, whereby the robots turn on humans, don’t become a reality.


Robots: 500 Years in the making (YouTube/Science Museum)

If you dare to voyage into the uncanny valley and walk among more than 100 real-life robots, head down to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester for their exhibition Robots, which explores 500 years of trying to recreate ourselves in mechanical form. It runs from 19 October 2017 to 15 April 2018, and you can book tickets here

 


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