The uncanny valley in the brain
We like things that look like us. We anthropomorphize animals, things and even abstract ideas.
So it’s no surprise that we like machines to look like us too. Only, there’s a catch. They can’t look too much like us without being completely like us. Somewhere between the lovable cartoonish humanoid looks of Mertz and the fully human looks of people, lovable or not, there is the creepy android look that is thoroughly unlikable.
This phenomenon: as the thing gets close but not quite close enough to apparent human-ness, all of a sudden the humanish-looking thing starts freaking humans out, is called the uncanny valley.
Mark Brown for Wired UK reports on a new study led by Ayse Pinar Saygin of UCSD which found the brain’s uncanny valley response. It turns out that the motion-processing parts of the parietal cortex lit up when the subjects viewed videos of the spooky very realistic android Repliee Q2 (in the video above), including areas known for mirror neurons. This suggests that it’s the discrepancy between the biologically realistic appearance of the thing, and its biologically implausible, mechanical motion that freaks out the human brain.
It’s interesting that some roboticists think that the uncanny valley is nothing but disgust in the face of bad design. This finding may corroborate that view, if by bad design we mean bad — that is, unrealistic — motion algorithms. Similar abilities and looks are needed to climb out of the uncanny valley or the brain gets spooked by the incongruity.