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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Column: Why robots are creepy

You stand at the bus stop, waiting to go to Sacramento. A woman stands beside you holding a baby. You take another look at the mother and her child. You look at the baby and suddenly have an odd, creepy feeling you can’t quite explain. The child is a little too still, the infantile cooing a little off …

Meet the “reborn” doll, an actual fad in doll making. The baby dolls are constructed and painted so realistically that a passing glance wouldn’t see a difference between dolls and real infants. However, after seeing pictures of the dolls online (often posed next to unpainted dolls for comparison) I had one reaction:

That’s one of the creepiest damn things I’ve ever seen.

My reaction is a common one, so common that psychologists are studying why the creeped-out reaction occurs. This phenomenon is called “the uncanny valley,” the concept that when robots, dolls and mannequins – called human facsimiles – look and act almost like actual humans, people are repulsed. Roboticist Masahiro Mori originally coined the term “uncanny valley,” referring to the dip in the proposed graph of positive human reaction to a human facsimile versus how lifelike that facsimile is – more human equals more creepy.

Mori believes that everything – whether human or robot, earth or plant – has a spirit. In his 1974 book The Buddha in the Robot: a Robot Engineer’s Thoughts on Science and Religion, Mori states, “I believe robots have the buddha-nature within them – that is, the potential for attaining buddhahood.”

I first encountered Mori while reading his article in The Japan Times, where he argued that one should “throw a little ceremony, a small funeral” when an object like a flashlight can no longer be used.

Upon thinking about it a little bit, however, it almost makes sense. Children always talk to their dolls as though they were alive. Adults haven’t outgrown this behavior; who here hasn’t begged a cell phone to work when it freezes or sworn at a computer when it refuses to connect to the internet?

Of course, when pressed, we all realize that the cell phone isn’t receptive to our requests and our computer couldn’t care less for our expansive vocabulary. That doesn’t stop us from dimly hoping with that emotional part of our brains that our appliances and possessions will respect us and help us if we treat them well.

It’s as if we think electronics have souls.

Despite this personification, we don’t get creeped out by our cell phones or computers. However, look up actroids on Youtube (go to tinyurl.com/25kl6z for a particularly disturbing sample) I’m guessing a large percentage of you wouldn’t want to watch that at night in the dark.

“Oh, are you surprised that I’m a robot?” No, android woman, I’m not, but I am disturbed. The dead-looking face of the android, combined with the almost-but-not-quite realistic movement, makes for an unsettling effect.

Where does that leave the engineers building the robots of the future? It’s hard to imagine robots like the one in the video becoming commonplace when they disturb so many human observers. One option is to make the robots so human-like that an untrained eye wouldn’t be able to spot the difference. While having such a Blade-Runner existence might be interesting, technological and ethical concerns will likely keep that from happening for a while.

More likely is that engineers will make robots that look nothing like humans. The military already does this with their robotic designs. They are developing robots that can go into the field to rescue injured soldiers or survey an area. These robots bear no resemblance to humans because they don’t need to.

Perhaps to fix this issue, we should go back to Mori, the “grandfather” of Japanese robotics.

“Most people have trouble learning all the functions on their TV and mobile phones,” he said to The Japan Times. “What we need now is simpler design; most of the functions are unnecessary anyhow.”

Simplify robots to key functions, or for that matter, all of our machines. That would be a welcome respite from the complication of malfunctioning cell phones and nightmarish baby dolls.

AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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