Why Do Humans Find Life-like Androids So Creepy?

Friday, 27 June 2014 - 4:18PM
Friday, 27 June 2014 - 4:18PM
Why Do Humans Find Life-like Androids So Creepy?
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Hiroshi Ishiguro, the Japanese robotics expert who released two of the worlds most photorealistic and life-like androids ever earlier this week, has been receiving some shockingly bad press for his creations. News sources from all over the world are calling his two female androids "creepy", "scary", "disgusting" and "eerie." Some people have even been taking it out on Ishiguro himself, questioning his intentions in creating these two robots, calling him "a sicko".


The reason for these negative reactions are best explained in neurological terms. According to research being led by Professor Ayse Pinar Saygin at University of California, San Diego, humans are hardwired to feel 'creeped out' when confronted with a dissonant rendition of humanness. Using MRI brain scanning technology on subjects under controlled lab conditions, the UCSD team has been able to empirically quantify the extent to which varying degrees of 'humanness' in androids effects the parietal cortex region of the brain. This increased activity displayed in people's brains when provoked by the lifelike androids is in turn, responsible for preventing "empathy neurons" from doing their job. It would seem that this research confirms a 40 year old psychological theory commonly known as the 'Uncanny valley' theory.


The Uncanny valley theory hypothesizes that humans are psychologically repulsed by dissonant human features. A basic representation of a doll doesn't alarm most people, since it is so easily distinguishable from a human being. The same goes for an industrial robot. But the closer a humanoid representation moves towards a realistic human image, the 'creepier' it gets for most people. As you can see in the graph below, this 'creepiness' factor takes a dramatic plunge for the worse just before it hits the level of being identical and indistinguishable from a human. This dramatic dip, know as the "uncanny valley", is what all robot makers should try to avoid if they want their work to be taken seriously by the public. Saygin aptly adds that it's "not so crazy to suggest we brain-test-drive robots or animated characters before spending millions of dollars on their development."


[The Uncanny Valley Effect]


So how does one go about creating a robot that doesn't repulse its potential human owners?


1. Steer clear of human characteristics all together!

If the level of aesthetic humanness that you give your android does not correspond proportionately to the level of humanness of android's movement and function, it will fall straight into the dead-man zone of the "uncanny valley. According to Saygin, "The brain doesn't seem tuned to care about either biological appearance or biological motion per se [...] What it seems to be doing is looking for its expectations to be met – for appearance and motion to be congruent."


Since it's a lot easier to create a photorealistic silicone face than to program with the fluidity of the organic body, you will surely set yourself up to fail by devoting too much time on making your android's face appear 'human'. The human brain is not used to processing dissonance: a stunted yet photorealistic android will alarm your viewer's brain, and trigger negative emotions. 


Take 'Otonaroid': Ishiguro's new android-woman. Ishiguro created her as a highly photorealistic android-version of a real-life woman using state-of-the-art technology, precise silicone moldings, paying attention to the smallest physical detail.When she is still, the result is striking. She really does look like a human woman. But once she starts moving, she suddenly becomes highly disturbing to watch.


Her movements are stunted, her facial expression is off, and her lips don't move withe her speech. The final result is an android that will haunt your dreams.



2. Match your android to its voice. 

Your android' voice must match it's aesthetic. A humanlike android with a synthetic voice creates a cognitive dissonance that alarms the brain into thinking that the android is 'creepy.' Same is true for an industrial-looking robot with a human voice.




3. If you artificially recreate some facial muscles, make sure you do them all....

....Otherwise your android will end up looking like this: 


Enough said. 



4. Refrain from finetuning your android to unrealistic ideals of beauty.

Extensive research has shown that today's standards of beauty often works against many people's ideas of natural beauty. The backlash over excessively re-touched images of models in the media is growing every year, so it's safe to assume that people will feel the same over their androids.



- Avoid overly-symmetrical faces.

Human faces are not symmetrical. Keep this in mind when you go about building your android. The image below juxtaposes an untouched photograph of a woman's face next to a manipulated photo of what her face would look like if it were perfectly symmetrical. She goes from looking like a perfectly normal human to, creepy in one fell swoop. 





- Refrain from eye color enhancement and eye enlargement, even if you think it makes your android look prettier. 




5. Thinking of creating your android in the image of a child or a baby? Don't even go there.




There's something magical and untouchable about childhood, and nobody wants to see it rendered to a machine. 


(Credits: UCSD, ibtimes, Alex John Beck)