Uncanny Valley: The Dark Origins of the Robot

Where did the robot come from?

In today’s age of modern technology, we’re presented a limited, marketable spectrum of what robots can be: helpful, futuristic, profitable, and sometimes cute.

However, the underlying concept of service bots predates the business goals of the Fortune 500, and is deeply rooted in literature and mythology.

What does the word “robot” mean?

The term “robot” comes from the Czech term “robotnik,” meaning “slave.” The term was coined by twentieth-century science fiction writer and Nobel laureate Karel Čapek, who first demonstrated its use in his short 1920 play R.U.R., which portraying manufactured, android-like workers that emulate humans in form and anatomy, but lack souls.

Spoiler alert: as the story goes, the robot slaves rebel against their human masters.

Have you ever felt uncertain, or even threatened by a robot, or another persuasive yet inanimate character that appears to be living? You’re not alone.

As artificial intelligence evolved throughout the decades, these fictional robots began to adopt the form of material objects — from wooden dolls to machinery. However, the unmistakable yet intangible threat that robots pose to humans has remained largely constant throughout both literature as well as the human psyche.

From Uncanny Valley to Silicon Valley

E.T.A. Hoffmann, the author behind the work that inspired The Nutcracker, explored our automaton counterparts in gothic short stories and novellas — from characters falling in love with life-like, human-sized wooden dolls, to capturing disgust towards human figures and personalities corrupted by the soulless and wicked. His work pioneered our understanding of the “uncanny valley” phenomenon years before the term for it erupted during the rise of computers and CGI, a term which describes our inherent revulsion to things that appear off-human, creepy, or even a threat to our human distinctiveness.

The term was formally canonized in 1970 by robotics professor Masahiro Mori to describe the relationship between how more human-like an object is, the more we’re disturbed by it.

You can see the literal valley in this graph:

Examples of this phenomenon include common reactions to humanoid robots, CGI face-reconstruction (e.g. Princess Leia in Star Wars: Rogue One, or Jeff Bridges in TRON: Legacy) and mechanical dolls in theme parks (e.g. Disney World’s Hall of Presidents, and most other things at Disney World).

You can already see that the most acclaimed commercial robots have been largely distinct from the human form. Robots like Sony’s Aibo, a mechatronic pet dog, and Jibo, a robot that has been described as “socially charming,” have been physically abstracted and exaggerated in order to appeal to a broader audience.

Are humans the problem?

With deep roots in fear and ethical gray-areas, it’s no wonder that our view of robots today hasn’t changed all that drastically. But is that OK?

Humans tend to abuse chatbots, robots, and voice assistants wherever the opportunity to do so exists. Alexa, Siri, food delivery robots — all bear the brunt of our attitude towards subhuman entities, manifested in the form of verbal disrespect, curses, or even physical violence.

By and large, robots are expected to diligently serve and attend to our needs while enduring our abuse.

Will we ever reach a point where we can create bots that are completely indistinguishable from humans, superseding the uncanny valley? And if we fail, how far will it set us back?


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