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February, 2009 : Feature:

Parallax: Turing the Uncanny Valley

or, Genesis 1:27

Robots. We make them in our own image, not from clay but from cogs, servos and circuitry. But a lot really does depend on our definition of the word "image." Does it mean that they pass for us on the street, or remain unrecognized for what they are over telephone lines or chat programs? Does it mean they look like us? Think like us? Or, does it mean, perhaps, all of the above?

My house is full of robots. Not just the trashcan-lid vacuum cleaner that seems to get a charge from being underfoot—but stuff doing stuff all over my house. Machines perform repetitive tasks that I just don't feel like doing: washing and drying my clothes, doing my dishes, mixing and kneading dough, and yes, vacuuming. Jasmine the vacuum cleaner likes to bump against my foot like an attention-starved puppy, only to back away and spin before heading off under the couch. But she'll be back.

Now if we treat a walk through my home as a jaunt through the Uncanny Valley, we find nothing upsetting. Robotics engineers and researchers proposed the concept of The Uncanny Valley both to explain and predict human reactions to certain shapes, in relation to the human form—reactions ranging from acceptance to revulsion, fondness to fear, love to terror. The Uncanny Valley correlation can extend from beloved, stuffed-animal cats called Mimi to giant CGI lizardiform whatzits rampaging through Gotham. Strictly speaking, anything can be placed along the continuum, from chairs to mountain ranges, but the interesting stuff happens in a fairly restricted area where objects are quite close to human form: the Uncanny Valley.

Human-like things that are benign and far enough away from us, such as Mimi or elves or the Easter Bunny, are unthreatening and cherishable. Those things uncomfortably close to us, but off just a bit, like zombies or Terminators or members of the Bush family, invoke terror and revulsion. If you think of the reaction as a dynamic relationship, acceptance of human-like objects rises until you reach an area just prior to "recognizably human" where acceptance plummets and indicates the kind of repulsion surrounding certain prominent residents of Kennebunkport.

Robots are not just about looks. How they communicate with us, how they think, how they ask and answer questions will play a large role in how we relate to them. In a 1950 paper, Alan Turing proposed a test for a computational machine's ability to demonstrate intelligence through conversation. In a Turing Test, a human judge is assigned to talk to two unseen partners: a human and a machine. If the judge is unable to reliably discern the human from the CPU, the machine has passed the Turing Test. Now generally I don't speak to my washing machine or my vacuum cleaner, but were one of them were to stop me in the hallway, it would have to pass the Turing Test to hold my attention.

To date, the champion Turing Test graduates seem to be those that mimic the schizophrenic. I may be missing something, but until now passing the Turing Test seems to rely on the reluctance of the human judge to say, "What the hell is wrong with you?" and cut the connection.

A machine that can carry on a serious and in-depth discussion is beyond our current technology, unless there are some serious black-ops CPUs hidden in hardened bunkers somewhere, in which case they are reading this and I should watch myself. In 1944, Cleve Cartmill got a knock on the door from FBI agents concerned about a description of nuclear chain reactions in his short story "Deadline." I may get a visit from waxy-faced model 9000s with fedoras tugged low on their foreheads. Meat or metal, Big Brother will be watching.

In recent years consciousness has been postulated to be an emergent property. Housed not principally by neurons but as a result of quantum effects skittering over their surfaces, consciousness perches outside the physio-chemical functions of axons and synaptic gaps comprising the physical structure of your brain, dependent yet separate. The complexification derived from quantum effects may be more difficult to duplicate on circuit boards—more profound than simply matching dendritic connectivity. If this is the explanation for consciousness, the desired results might be mimicked with intricate-enough algorithms and the anticipated development of quantum computers.

So the question is: which is creepier—a wax museum dummy or an intelligent intercom system? Visceral and intellectual answers may differ. At first glance, I would much rather have a conversation about politics or religion with my PDA's resident AI than listen to a bipedal cleaning robot lurch down the hallway in the middle of the night. On the other hand, when my PDA takes to referring to itself as Skynet my complacency and confidence in technological solutions may just suffer a major blow.

Robots will exist at the confluence of mind and image, optimality being where they don't scare the Hell out of us, or make us feel inferior or threatened. Inevitably they will make us feel these things, of course. Perhaps some fool will decide that we need benevolent machine overlords and release them. Or, perhaps, something wonderful will happen.

The evolution of artificial intelligence—coupled with the development of mechanical prowess and esthetic detailing—may take us to utopian levels of machine perfection. But this is engineering as we know it; nanotechnology—whose promise is as yet still to be plumbed—is a speeding train conducted by a 900-pound gorilla. Ultimately, much of nanotechnology is the interplay of molecules in complex and controlled ways; a choreography of directed physics and chemistry. Robotics will not be restricted to wired pathways or miniaturized servos; the direct interaction of molecular shapes, locks, transit systems and polarities can be harnessed and micromanaged for holistic results.

Once nanotechnology becomes complex enough, perhaps the sharp line delimiting engineering and biology will blur to such an indistinct borderland that the continuum between biology and artifact is no longer significant and the thing that slides, dripping, from the manufactory chamber looks outward with the birth innocence once reserved for our eyes only. And when we see those eyes freshly opened, as all parents know, then the learning really starts.

My mobile vacuum cleaner still comes running up against my foot in such a way that allows me to wonder if she want a scratch behind the micro switch. But Josie the dog isn't jealous, so at least to date the vacuum cleaner has not passed her Turing Test. So what can a little rub hurt? There now...good girl, Jasmine.

Copyright © 2009, Rob Furey. All Rights Reserved.

About Rob Furey

Dr. Rob Furey worked on his PhD in Gabon, West Africa, on social spiders. He has returned to his study site several times for his own research, with students and once as a forest guide for a natural history film crew from the UK. He has faced down cobras, retreated from army ants and slept on open wooden platforms in African swamps. Later he went to French Amazonia to work on another social spider species. Not only did he spend time with the spiders, but he watched a gunfight between gold prospectors and French army troops while he ate a meal of roasted tapir. Since then Rob has returned to the tropics several times, usually with students. He spent time as a student himself attending Clarion West. He has published a couple of stories in anthologies since then in addition to articles for dusty tomes on arcane spider behavior. He is currently part of the charter faculty at Harrisburg University, the first new private university in Pennsylvania in over 100 years.


Feb 5, 04:35 by IROSF
"Parallax: Turing the Uncanny Valley"
Feb 5, 21:37 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Interesting. I am not sure where I was reading about the Uncanny Valley originally, but I have tried to follow developments in the theory since. I am quite taken with the idea that we have evolved a 'revulsion mechanism' that is activated when we encounter something that is pretty close to human, but not quite. Witness the film Polar Express. Part of the reason it bombed so spectacularly was that the CGI humans were close, but not close enough, to actual humans and thus revolted many viewers.

My friends and I debate humaniform robots frequently. I am still not convinced that we need or even desire them. The closer they mimic the human form, the closer they get to the floor of the uncanny valley and the less attractive they will become (to the point of a Dune-like anti-machine pogrom, who can say).

While the prospect of an artificial intelligence is intellectually frightening, unless that intelligence is housed in a close-but-not-close-enough to human shell, the sheer visceral repulsion would be absent. I am fairly certain that we will either pass the humaniform robot uncanny valley problem or abandon the humaniform robot as a curiosity long before be have Turing compliant machines.

Robot vacuum cleaners are creepy, but for entirely different reasons.

It is interesting how the Other seems to be much much more like ourselves than we want to recognize.
Feb 6, 04:05 by Bluejack
As something of a counter-argument, human-but-not-quite human sex dolls are apparently a thriving business. They may not walk, talk, or bat their eyelashes, but that's just a matter of time. Actually, there will probably be other musculature that gets animated first.

It seems probable that the "uncanny valley" is more about behavior and expression than it is about actual appearance. I think the lack of communicative micro-expressions will creep us out way more than a lack of pores. But robotics engineers are making quite a study of expression (using devices well outside the uncanny, but also using devices that do a pretty good job of proving the thesis).

Eye contact, people. That can't be too hard!
Feb 6, 15:53 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
You bring up a good point. As an S/F aside, there was an episode of Ghost in the Shell Second Gig that actually featured an exclusive men's club devoted to sex dolls. I will wager that most people that see them still suffer the revulsion factor (for more reasons than the uncanny valley, granted). Margo Lanagan's "Machine Maid" in Extraordinary Engines deals with the sex doll as well, although this one is an almost perfect simulacrum, and the disturbing effect that it has on people.

It's a fascinating discovery, though. One that we really weren't able to discern or study until we were able to build simulations that could evoke the effect. It will be interesting to see how the research develops.

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