Masahiro Mori, born in 1927, professor in robotics, wrote an essay offering reflections on the notion of the uncanny in 1970. I will provide some historical background about it and its relation to Freud’s text. For now, let us focus on its contents.

This scheme captures what he called the eerie valley phenomenon (which is generally translated into English as the Uncanny Valley Hypothesis). It’s quite straightforward. We should imagine ourselves standing here. The x-axis denotes how much something appears to be human. The y-axis denotes how much familiar we feel with it. On the top-right corner, we see another quote-unquote healthy human, member of our species. Mori suggests that the more things look like a human, the more we like them. For example, we like an industrial robot that does the hard work for us, we like a teddy-bear that we use to sleep with, and we find sci-fi robot-like robots being even cuter. Mori’s main suggestion says that when this similarity becomes too much, however, we reach a point of the disturbance he denotes as a valley. Often this has to do with whether something that should move appears immobile or vice versa. Think what would happen if you saw a real-life (wink wink) zombie, Addams Family’s the Thing, think of a moving prosthetic hand and think of the first time you saw a person with a prosthetic limb. According to Mori’s speculation, this eerie feeling has to do with an instinct that protects us from dangerous species, different to our own. Mori recommends that “We hope to design and build robots and prosthetic hands that will not fall into the uncanny valley.”

In the 70s, when this essay was written, this was just speculation. From the 2000s onwards, roboticists and neuroscientists expressed an interest in this notion and began making experiments using fMRI scans to measure brain activity when participants came in contact with robot-like robots, human-like robots with micro-movements, and human-like humans. People were exposed to these three types for 2 seconds and their brain activity was measured afterward when they were told if their guess was right. When seeing robots, humans were found to have relatively usual activity. When encountering humans, their brain appears to recognize the familiar species. When a human-like robot reveals its true nature, brain activity goes bonkers. Hence, in 2005, scientists spoke of a third variable in the Uncanny Valley, that is, the similarity of behaviour, or, in other words, the expectation of something acting as that particular something.

Japanese people take great pride in producing cutting-edge robotic technology. For more than ten years now, they themselves have criticized the validity of the Uncanny Valley for Japanese people for the very fact that they have been exposed to images of Astro Boy and other robots for many years and they don’t find such images spooky. In 2018, we might assume that this is true for many regions around the world. Moreover, other critiques emphasize on subjectivity: one’s uncanny is another one’s beauty. Interestingly, Geller adds the variable of social acceptability, comparing reactions to Ingrid Bergman and Michael Jackson, or Michelangelo’s Pieta and a moving corpse.

Nonetheless, excluding the articles that aim at contributing to the notion of the uncanny and the uncanny valley, the latter has become a standard reference in robotics R&D technical articles. Roboticists tend to refer to the uncanny valley briefly, by stating how they will avoid it in their projects. Other researchers have spoken of an “uncanny cliff” – once you fall down, it is impossible to get up since, according to their measurements, humans tend to prefer cute nonhuman-like robots than human-like robots. There are spatiotemporal and cultural dynamics in the uncanny valley and we can tell from the social acceptability (or not) of Michael Jackson’s third nostril, the iconic Stephen Hawking, and the cyborg activist Neil Harbisson. These, by the way, are images used by Mori in his original paper.

On a final note, a strange, uncanny bond, links Mori’s text to Freud’s. Freud’s text was written in 1919 and translated into English by Strachey between 1932-1936 for the 17th volume of Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Mori’s text was written in 1970 and received relatively little attention, but because of science fiction, the term became more famous in the recent years and eventually was translated in English for the purposes of a conference in 2005, and then, more carefully for a robotics journal, in 2012. If we look at the texts, it appears quite obvious that there is a causal link between them: Freud mentions automata and human-like dolls in his treatise on the Uncanny, and Mori seems as if he takes that theory, enriching it from the roboticist’s perspective. However, as Elizabeth Jochum and Ken Goldberg inform us, during a telephone call by a colleague of his in 2013 “Masahiro Mori said that he was completely unfamiliar with Freud’s essay and had never heard of the link with Freud until Inoue’s call.”

Perhaps, in that case, the Uncanny Valley is quite antiracist and anti-chauvinist, as it shows that the questions concerning the uncanny are common no matter if one is occidental or oriental. Studying the transformations of the uncanny valley through these different perspectives and methodologies allows us, perhaps, to understand the uncanny, and hence all related psychoanalytical paraphernalia. What do you think?


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