Source of robot creepiness in 'Uncanny Valley' identified
When robots look a little too human, they enter 'Uncanny Valley'. Brain scans have revealed why we find them so unsettling.
Ever felt slightly creeped by robots that look just a little too human for comfort? You’re not alone. The phenomenon is known as the Uncanny Valley, and scientists have now identified brain mechanisms that could be behind the feeling. They have also shown that some people are more weirded out by human-like agents than others.
As technology improves, so too does our ability to create life-like artificial agents, such as robots and computer graphics – but this can be a double-edged sword.
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- Uncanny valley: robots so creepy they'll haunt your dreams
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To investigate what happens in our brains when we enter Uncanny Valley, the researchers studied brain patterns in 21 healthy individuals using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a device that measures changes in blood flow within different regions of the brain.
First participants were shown a number of images of humans and robots with varying degrees of human-likeness. They were then asked which of them they would trust to select a personal gift for them, a gift that a human would like. The team found that participants generally preferred gifts from humans or from the more human-like artificial agents – except those that were closest to the boundary between human and robot – the Uncanny Valley.
By measuring brain activity during these tasks, the researchers were able to identify which brain regions were involved in creating the uneasy feeling associated with the Uncanny Valley. Namely, the visual cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in creating a person’s value system.
“This is the first study to show individual differences in the strength of the Uncanny Valley effect, meaning that some individuals react overly and others less sensitively to human-like artificial agents,” said Prof Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten. “This means there is no one robot design that fits—or scares—all users. In my view, smart robot behaviour is of great importance, because users will abandon robots that do not prove to be smart and useful.”
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.