Aug
24
2009

A BEAR in the uncanny valley

This is not BEAR: It's how I think of BEAR.
This is not BEAR: It's how I think of BEAR.Courtesy JGordon
Have we never talked about the uncanny valley on Science Buzz? I searched for the term, and got nothing. (Although… I’m beginning to suspect that my computer doesn’t accept voice commands. “Computer, display LOLcats,” gets me nothing, and I know that there are LOLcats out there.)

So… the uncanny valley. It has to do with robots, and human-simulation thingys. It’s like… like… well, here’s an example:

Think about factory assembly line robots—big arms, repetitive movements… it doesn’t do much for you, does it? They’re just boring ol’ machines.

Now think about R2D2, Star Wars’ trashcan robot. Beep beep, whistle! Cute, huh? He rolls around, and does sassy things we can’t understand, and we know he’s a robot, and he’s pretty likeable.

Now think about Johny 5 from Short Circuit. He can talk, he’s got a face, and expressive eye-flaps. And we still kind of like him, despite the attitude. (Great, you can read fast. Clean my kitchen before I have you recycled, robot.)

Now think abut C3PO, Star Wars’ deeply uncomfortable, shuffle-gaited robot. He’s pretty much human shaped, he speaks human (with an accent too…), and he’s clearly grappling with some of the same personal identity issues we real humans deal with. And… he’s just a little bit creepy, isn’t he? He’s like us, but not like us… How do we deal with this goldbot?*

And then there’s the “Simroid,” the Japanese robotic monstrosity used for dentist training. See the Simroid:

Clearly Lady Simroid has discovered what it means to be human, and she is, appropriately, horrified. And it doesn’t help that her existence is limited to sitting in a chair and having dental students see what hurts.

But, see, robots like the Simroid, in their appearance and limited behavior, are quite like humans. And it’s weird! They make us uncomfortable. So like us, but they’re absolutely missing the piece that makes a person a person. Brrrr

And then, moving on, we have healthy, living humans. Or maybe Blade Runner replicants. And they aren’t so weird any more. We’re back up to something we’re comfortable with.

It’s the Simroid point on this scale where the familiarity/comfort level takes a huge dive. That’s the uncanny valley.

(Another way to think about it might be cartoons. Stick figures. Disney’s Aladdin. Toy Story. The Polar Express movie adaptation. Pirates of the Caribbean. Which of these are you least likely to see on a poster in a kid’s bedroom? Well, maybe stick figures, but do you see what I’m getting at?)
See the dip in the graph?: That's the uncanny valley. It's full of zombies and simroids.
See the dip in the graph?: That's the uncanny valley. It's full of zombies and simroids.Courtesy Smurrayinchester

There are different theories as to why objects in the uncanny valley creep us out so much. The remind us of dead things. (Like zombies!) They are similar enough to us that, on a biological level, we perceive them as a threat (because a genetically similar creature is more likely to pass diseases to us, I guess), and so we feel revulsion towards them. Or they’re no longer like robots, but when we judge them on the human scale, they come up disturbingly lacking. Basically, they’re weird.

So, when you’re building your humanoid, you have to decide early on where you’re going to shoot for on the uncanny valley scale. If you aim too high, you may end up dooming your creation to the same hate we have for ventriloquists’ dummies. (In my opinion, you should probably set your expectations somewhere around R2D2, unless you’re making a baby. And even then…)

Enter the military-funded “Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot,” or BEAR. BEAR was designed to be able to rescue wounded people in combat areas, and to do heavy, potentially dangerous tasks. It’s basically some big treads and a torso with arms, and each new version is a little stronger, and more nimble and damage resistant. And the newest versions have bizarre teddy bear heads, apparently because that’s the sort of thing that’s reassuring to an injured soldier.

So where does this fall on the uncanny scale? We like teddy bears. But teddy bears are usually soft and fuzzy, not six-foot-tall human-torsoed robots, able to dead lift 500 pounds. Also, their dark lifeless eyes aren’t usually set in hard, urban camo faces. For me, at least, a face like that seems to promise physical dismemberment with utter, robotic detachment (pun intended, I guess?).

Am I alone? Am I relating too much (but not enough) to the BEAR? How do y’all feel? Anything else in the uncanny valley that you feel deserves a shout out for its creepiness? Let’s have it.

*I’m aware that R2D2 and C3PO are supposed to be spelled out phonetically. I won’t be doing that. Ever.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

bryan kennedy's picture

From the BBC article on the BEAR, "Teddy bear face designed to be reassuring." Um, if I'm wounded in battle (something this coward is never likely to experience) I doubt I'm gonna find a robotic teddy bear reassuring. Maybe Teddy Roosevelt's face?

posted on Mon, 08/24/2009 - 2:32pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Seriously. Even, like, an actual plush bear face would be pretty confusing, but this kind of looks like... like what mother terminators give to their children.

Yeah, I don't think I'd mind having TR carry me out of a minefield like a sack of potatoes. Plus, maybe with the lengthy history of animatronic presidents we could skip over the valley. Or deeper into it.

posted on Mon, 08/24/2009 - 3:08pm
curious's picture
curious says:

holy sugar on simroid! wow. wow. i'm both amazed and yet a little creeped....hmm...though i read too much manga that this concept isn't totally scary. it's just, wow, technology, wow. this is amazing.

so...um, do androids dream of electric sheep? seems like we will be able to find out in a few more years.

posted on Mon, 08/24/2009 - 4:14pm
bryan kennedy's picture

If you think this BEAR is scary, check out the freakishly fast robot fingers. They don't show the video of the robot finger doing that special death punch from the end of Kill Bill.

posted on Tue, 08/25/2009 - 10:16am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Oh, man! Another bear-bot!

RIBA is like BEAR's Japanese cousin. It's also designed for picking people up, but in hospitals instead of war zones. It's cuter too, but somehow much more shootable.

posted on Thu, 08/27/2009 - 10:16am
bryan kennedy's picture

Gosh, why do they have to keep anthropomorphizing (or ursapomorphizing, I guess) these things? I mean my milkshake mixer isn't made to look like a little squid, the sink in my house doesn't look like a koala, and the machine that helps with my blood donation isn't dolphin shaped. So, why would I want a freaky rolling bear punching bag helping my nurse to pick me up in the hospital.

I'm actually not just ranting. I'm genuinely curious if there is some sort of perceived advantage to making some machines seem like creatures, vs. generic machines.

posted on Thu, 08/27/2009 - 3:01pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

When I was visiting a friend in Japan, I was amazed by the bathroom technology. Japan is light years ahead of us in that department.

One of my favorites was his toilet. You washed your hands in it. That is, you washed your hands in the clean water running to fill up the tank. The spigot on the tank was a little penguin. It flapped its wings (flippers?) as water ran through it. It was really something else. Maybe having things shaped like animals makes you want to use them more. Like, "Oh, I don't think I want to wash my hands in the toilet... but I can't disappoint that little penguin! Let's do this."

Also, I would love a milkshake mixer shaped like a squid. (The koala sink I could take or leave.)

posted on Mon, 04/05/2010 - 11:00am

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