The 1970 study Bukimi no Tani, by pioneering roboticist Masahiro Mori demonstrated that the aesthetic appeal of a robot increased with an increasing likeness toward the human. Then, at a degree of almost, but not quite human appearance, the line on the graph suddenly dipped. People responded to the almost but not quite human with a sense of wrongness, of creepiness, of the uncanny, which Mori dubbed the Valley Of Eeriness, and later translations called the Uncanny Valley.

Moi-rEeriness-Graph

The study measured anthropomorphism and degree of familiarity against an empathetic reaction. It explains why Astro-Boy and Pinocchio are cute, why Wall-E has large binocular eyes, and why the androids of Blade Runner, and the Humanoid Robots of the series Humans, despite looking more like us, are weird, alien, even threatening. It is perhaps a measure, as in Blade Runner, not of a fear of superiority, but whether an empathetic response is reflected back to us.

It also explains why Hitchbot, although having successfully traversed Canada, Germany and the Netherlands, encountered hostility when it reached more primitive regions. The Hitchbot project involved releasing a remote robot, fitted with equipment to record its travels and encounters, and a limited form of interactivity, into the wilds of the world’s highways. Looking something like a solar panel covered garbage can, with enclosed LED screens behind perspex displaying images approximating a face at the top, and rubber arms and legs attached, Hitchbot on a first encounter is more like a parody than a being. Clearly at some point on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, it failed to generate a sufficient empathetic response in the humans that encountered it, and while this may have been a fault in the humans, studies in the genetics of our pets and domesticated animals, and in the domestication of previously wild species, such as the Russian silver fox, cuteness, or kawaii, as they would say in Japan, is a survival trait that animals that live alongside humans also develop. Wild cats, dogs, foxes, are mottled, grey, or dun; dull, camouflage colours. As seen in the development of silver foxes, over 50 years of selective breeding for friendliness, tameness, tail-wagging, cute colours and patterns seemed to develop in parallel with cute behaviour. It has long been observed that cats do not make cute little miaows when communicating to each other, that is something they only do with us. Hitchbot, to survive, needs to evolve, achieve a measure of person-hood, big friendly lenses, perhaps remote independent movement, some R2D2-like beeping – the robotic equivalent of the cat’s miaow. To escape the valley of eeriness, to inspire empathy, Hitchbot and other robots need to be kawaii.

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The series Humans (based on the Swedish series Äkta MänniskorReal Humans) explores the social and personal consequences when developments in AI technology result in hubots – humanoid robots or synths – becoming commonplace. As servants, workers, carers, companions, sex slaves, synthetic humans suddenly seem to be in all walks of life. The androids of Humans are both superior in skill, in information, endurance and strength, but lack, the agency, the will of being. Mostly. One small group, created by the scientist who developed the synths, has been given independent thought, independent feeling, what might be described as genuine, independent life. The consequences of that is far reaching for the androids themselves, as they are hunted by a shadowy government agency, and for the people that take them in and hide them. Are they a threat, or does their human-like intelligence, the ability to store experience digitally inside immortal synthetic bodies, offer the key to the next stage in human development?

The series stars Colin Morgan, Katherine Parkinson, Gemma Chan, Manpreet Bachu, Emily Berrington, Ruth Bradley, Lucy Carless, Pixie Davies, Jack Derges, Sope Dirisu, Rebecca Front, Tom Goodman-Hill, Jill Halfpenny, Ivanno Jeremiah, Neil Maskell, Theo Stevenson, Will Tudor, Danny Webb and the legendary William Hurt as one of the scientists who originally developed synthetic humans.

Gemma Chan gives a mesmerizing performance as a synthetic human, acquired by the Hawkins family and given the name Anita. Unbeknownst to them, suppressed in code under the robotic personality of Anita, is Mia, an independent android with her own history, motivations and goals. Her reserve is at once robotic and elegant, uncanny and entrancing, flashes as the personality of Mia breaks through glassy surface, frightening. It’s a portrayal that may require a rewriting of Masahiro Mori’s graph. Humans is a glimpse of an all too possible future that is both intriguing and disturbing.

Currently showing on ABC2 on Monday nights at 8.30, thanks to Roadshow Entertainment we are celebrating this ground-breaking production by giving away 15 DVD sets of Series One to our Australian readers. Series One will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Roadshow Entertainment on September 30. Special Features include Character Profiles, Greetings From The Set, Behind The Scenes, Being A Synth and much more. Series 2 will be broadcast in 2016.

To be one of our winners all you have to do is name any robot or android that is uncanny, or one that is kawaii. You can explain why, if you like. Winners will be selected midday on September 30, and the most original answers will win. Leave your answer in the comments below.

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About The Author

C S Hughes

C S Hughes is a proud member of the TV generation, studied film and communications, collects the paperback books of Philip K Dick, loves science fiction and fantasy books, B grade movies and cult TV, American thrillers and British noir, restoring vintage watches, reading poetry, creating innovative illustrated poetry books which are available in Apple’s iBooks format, and cake. Especially cake. He has also written short stories, and has a collection of horror stories coming out in 2015.

45 Responses

  1. Mick G

    Actroid with her kawaii looks mind blowing realism and brilliant self preserving reflexes is unbelievably human like

    Reply
  2. Bill Blaylock

    B-9 from Lost In Space – cute, jolly and sarcastic. Pris from Blade Runner – what a disturbing object!

    Reply
  3. Abe

    Yul Brynner in Westworld – sinister. HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey – very cute until he went mental.

    Reply
  4. Miranda J

    Vicki from the 80s sitcom “Small Wonder”, is it wrong to hit robot children? Halle Berry’s kind in “Extant” – another robot kid that needs to be sent to the naughty corner.

    Reply
  5. Joseph

    Built by Honda, the Advance Step In Innovative Mobility robot, or ASIMO, was first unveiled in October 2000. While its stature isn’t anything to gawk at—it stands just 1.3 meters (4.3 ft) tall and weighs 54 kilograms (119 lbs)—it’s ASIMO’s capabilities that set it apart. The robot was designed to be a personal assistant, helping those who can’t help themselves. It runs on a battery and, while it doesn’t have a mind of its own, it can be controlled by a computer, controller, or voice signals.

    That probably seems pretty run of the mill so far, but ASIMO also has the ability to differentiate and interact with humans by sensing postures, gestures, sounds, and even faces. If you were to walk in a room, ASIMO would turn to face you and actually shake your hand if you were to put it out first. It can even distinguish one person from another for up to 10 people. ASIMO has been showcased at several conventions and can currently be seen in a show at Disneyland. While it’s not the most up-to-date robot, ASIMO’s capabilities and humanoid qualities continue to keep it in the running with the more current androids.

    Reply
  6. Scott Crumlin

    Dewey, from the 1972 Science Fiction film, Silent Running. To see Dewey’s kawaii self, doing what is done in the final scene is to understand what robots and ultimately, humanity is all about. I CAN never forget that image, I hope it is NEVER needed and Planet Earth needs no domes.

    Reply
    • C S Hughes
      C S Hughes

      Very influential little robots in Silent Running – shaped the behaviour of R2D2 and the Skutters in Red Dwarf.

      Reply
  7. RICHARD D T WILSON

    The Lost in Space robot with its regular ‘warning Wil Robinson’ routine is a classic.

    Reply
  8. Jessica Ashbrooke

    Arnold Schwarzenegger as the terminator legendary and still taking over television

    Reply
  9. Lisa Bartlett

    Dexter from Perfect Match, he had the uncanny ability to spot love and a perfect match

    Reply
  10. Geoff Otterman

    Science Officer Ash in Ridley Scott’s Alien. I still remember the scene where the crew discover he’s an android. As a kid that creeped me out more than the alien! Uncanny indeed.

    Reply
  11. cheryl glass

    As a kid I loved Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. His childlike curiousity was very appealing. Johnny 5 is alive still in my heart.

    Reply
  12. SCOTT BRUNSKILL

    My ex….uncanny resemblance to human beings….great wit, which includes a touch of sarcasm…..”natural” counselling skills which I am more than happy to seek advice myself, rarely wrong

    Reply
  13. Carmel

    I’ll go with the little robot family in Batteries Not Included. Are they robots or are they mechanical aliens, I was never really sure on that. I took my kids to see it at the cinema, I loved it more than they did & I was the one who cried. What’s not to love about cute robot babies? Is that kawaii enough? 🙂

    Reply
  14. Suzie

    So hard to decide but I’m going to choose Lenny from The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov. During a problem with manufacture his brain is wiped and he ends up like a baby needing to be taught everything from scratch.

    Reply
  15. Bella

    Optimus Prime. Not afraid to go after what it wants and do whatever it takes to get its way.

    Reply
  16. John Plavins

    Robots and the so called weirdness valley there is no such thing it is the lack of humans you me trusting the robots trust is every day expecting the human feellings / warmth the human conversing with feellings / warmth /the uncontraversial conversations with that connects and with mannerisms that quite truly robots do not have the being human. The small muscle movements when humans speak with each other when we can tell if there is true feelings for each other the twinkle in the eye’s the moisturing towards tearing, the quirky some have of that angle of the face that say’s it all to one another. The perfect smile. The perfect cry of emotion. these cannot be programed these are random emotions that humans perfect with the age of the perfect kiss./the electrons the moisture moving between the lips/ small muscle conotation in the lip movements on contact the tongue contact.

    Reply
  17. David Carley

    VOC robots (Dr Who The Robots of Death) as Leela called them “creepy mechanical men. They looked human but lacked humanity and with their creator turning them against humans the crew had a hard time coming to terms that a killer/s existed amongst the robots.
    Plus as a kid the uncanny glowing red eyes freaked me out and watching as an adult I can see Dune and Asimov influences on that episode.

    Reply

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