The uncanny valley is an increasingly popular term that is likely to continue trending upwards. This strange, psychological phenomenon is felt by many, even if they don’t know the language surrounding it. People refer to the uncanny valley in regards to pop culture, the future of ai, and evolution, but what does it all mean? Today, we are going to take a deep dive into this weird intersection of biology and science fiction and learn all that we can about it. Let’s explore the uncanny valley and learn why in the world it’s so creepy!

What is the Uncanny Valley?

The uncanny valley is the negative feeling that people feel when a robot, ai, or imperfect human replica is extremely similar to a human but different in an unsettling way.

As the technology behind robotics and ai increases, the similarity between humans and your creations continues to increase. We may only be a few decades away from fully sentient ai, although that is a whole topic unto itself. As we interact with these new machines and interfaces, however, something in our biology is triggering a strange, unsettling feeling within us. Watching a lifelike robot doing human things can elicit an uneasy, strange feeling in our stomachs. As we are going to learn, that feeling is what we refer to as the uncanny valley.

Why is it Called the Uncanny Valley?

To understand the uncanny valley fully, we need to start with its name. The term was coined in 1970 by a robotics professor named Masahiro Mori. It was originally written as bukimi no tani genshō, but was first translated to English as “the uncanny valley” in a 1978 book titled Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction.

To make sense of the name, we need to understand how human empathy works. The theory states that the more an object or creation resembles a human, the greater the emotional response elicited. An easy example of this is a teddy bear. Humans can easily form an empathetic connection with a teddy bear, but not a blue lego block, primarily because of the lifelike attributes that a teddy bear has (eyes, nose, mouth, and more). As the human attributes increase, the empathetic response or affinity increases. Rising together on a graph, the line looks like a sloping hill.

Where the “valley” comes in, however, is when the object is the closest to a human likeness but still isn’t a living, breathing human. At this point, the empathetic response and affinity for that replica drop off the graph, forming a visible valley in the data. Within that valley, people report feelings of unease, worry, and even anxiety. An example of this is a corpse seen for the first time. They are clearly in the likeness of a human, but there is some indeterminable factor that triggers your body’s negative emotional response. This emotional response dropoff, when graphed against an axis of familiarity, forms the uncanny valley.

What Sort of Reaction Do People Have to the Uncanny Valley?

The reaction that people have to the uncanny valley is varied, but there are a few common responses and triggers. Some of the most common triggers include:

  • corpses
  • off-putting human dolls
  • lifelike robots and mannequins
  • artificial intelligence
  • zombies
  • certain prosthetics
  • 3D animations
  • virtual and augmented reality
Robots and artificial intelligence are likely to make someone experience the uncanny valley.

Many of these triggers are extremely similar to humans but have characteristics that differentiate them from living, breathing people.

When people encounter these examples in real life, certain feelings can be triggered. Many people report a feeling of “strange unease,” although this feeling is difficult to quantify. Other responses include feelings of coldness, eerieness, and unsettledness. For those questioning what these emotions feel like, try to remember the first time seeing a dead body as a small child. Often, the effect is similar.

In terms of a dictionary definition, the word “uncanny” is defined as: “strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.” Seems to fit the bill!

What is the Root Cause of the Uncanny Valley?

Since the uncanny valley is a working theory related to human behavior and biology, there isn’t a clear answer as to why humans feel this way. Let’s go over a few of the current theories, although it’s important to note that there are many more.

One of the more popular theories is that negative feelings are related to mate selection. Humans have an evolutionary bias toward certain traits that help us choose more “fit” individuals for reproduction. Generally, we dislike biological signs that show issues with hormonal regulation, bad immune systems, and physical ailment (although this isn’t always the case). Acne, sickly complexions, and others are all examples of this. To relate it to the uncanny valley, our brain is identifying the being in front of us as a potential mate (due to their similarity), but our cognitive bias for health is telling us there is something wrong with them.

Another theory is known as mortality salience. Generally, humans don’t like to think about death, and nearly every culture has developed ways to cope with or disregard its inevitability. A humanlike robotic object could elicit creepy subconscious feelings due to the following:

  • seeing a dismantled robot and the subsequent feelings of annihilation or the ability to be reduced to our body parts
  • a potent reminder that we could be soulless, especially when we compare ourselves to advanced androids

A third theory is that it is a method of pathogen avoidance. The “disgust” response is a powerful evolutionary adaptation that helps keep us away from pathogens that can harm us. Robotic objects could trigger this response due to their defects and similarity to a corpse.

It’s also possible that the feeling is a combination of a few things, even ones we didn’t cover above. Other examples include:

  • violation of human norms
  • religious revulsion and identity belief
  • threat to human distinction

Is the Uncanny Valley a Phobia?

The uncanny valley isn’t recognized as a phobia, although phobias of ai, robotic objects, and the like are certainly out there. Common synonyms could include technophobia, cyberphobia, and robophobia.

Although the uncanny valley isn’t a phobia, it can elicit a similar response. Many people describe it as emotionally disturbing, haunting, and “uncanny.”

What Movies Can Trigger the Uncanny Valley Feeling?

Although there isn’t any data to back this list up, here are some popular examples of movies that people claim can cause that uncanny feeling:

  • iRobot
  • The Polar Express (many people had revulsion towards the animation)
  • Anomalisa
  • Ex Machina
  • They Look Like People
  • The Shining
  • Us

Some of these films are intended to cause that uncanny feeling (Anomalisa, for example), while others aren’t (The Polar Express). Regardless, there are actual design practices that animations are robotics engineers are studying in order to better understand what exactly triggers those negative emotions.

What is the Uncanny Valley and Why is it So Creepy? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Why are humans scared of the uncanny valley?

There are a lot of theories as to why humans are scared of the uncanny valley. Some popular theories claim that they remind us of death, our biological “mate selector” is giving us a red flag, or our religious upbringing and understanding of the soul are being challenged.

What is at the bottom of the uncanny valley?

The bottom of the uncanny valley is simply the point at which humans feel the most revulsion and least empathy towards a human likeness.

Is the uncanny valley psychological?

The uncanny valley is likely a combination of psychological and biological responses.

Do animals experience an uncanny valley?

Although most animals don’t experience human responses toward human-like robotic objects, some research indicates that primates do. This can likely confirm some basal biological response as part of the root cause.

Where did the uncanny valley come from?

The word was coined in 1970 by a robotics professor named Masahiro Mori but was first translated to “the uncanny valley” in a 1978 book titled Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction.

Is the uncanny valley an evolutionary trait?

The uncanny valley likely has roots in our evolutionary biology and our cultural development of ideas like personhood and the soul.

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  • Available here: https://www.princeton.edu/news/2009/10/13/humans-monkeys-fall-uncanny-valley#:~:text=Oct.,that%20monkeys%20sense%20it%20too.
  • Available here: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2001-05852-000
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