Installment 2: Human Responses to Humanoid Robots

Welcome to the second installment of Wonderful Weird—a meditation on the strangeness of being human. This one is about the Uncanny Valley, or the anticipated human emotional response to humanoid robots!

How does Uncanny Valley fit into a series of articles about weird? Well, let me ask you: how do you feel about clowns, the Stepford Wives, zombies, talking to your electronic devices, furries, corpses, vampires, and the hitchhiking robot?

“Uncanny” is like the opposite of déjà vu. Whereas déjà vu describes that feeling you get when something completely new feels somehow familiar, uncanny describes that feeling you get when something that should be completely familiar seems oddly unfamiliar or off.

“We want to captivate our audiences, but not at the expense of their trust.”

The Uncanny Valley is the relationship between human emotion and objects as they approach human resemblance. The valley is where human emotional response dips into the negative as the object’s human resemblance becomes greater, yet stops short of perfect human simulation. So The Uncanny Valley describes our feelings toward something based on how human it seems to be or how human it seems to be striving to be.

Mashiro Mori, the Japanese roboticist who coined the phrase “uncanny valley,” noticed his robots were more appealing if they appeared human, but only up to a certain point. Mori observed that the appeal of his robots grew as their human likeness increased, until the point where their imperfect mimicry made people feel uneasy. He concluded that roboticists should not aim to create lifelike robots, either in looks or actions.

The Uncanny Valley by Mashiro Mori, modified by Erica Chiao
Figure 1. Slightly modified graph from Mori’s original paper, “Bukimi No Tani.” Over the years, the y-axis has gone from being labeled, “familiarity” to being translated as “affinity.” I’ve taken the liberty of more clearly labeling the valley part of the Uncanny Valley and pointing out some common negative emotions towards imperfectly human “beings.”

Authenticity in advertising follows a similar trajectory to the Uncanny Valley. Take for example, ads in podcasts. Podcast ads outperform other ad formats like video pre-roll, and the most effective are those that are host delivered. Host-delivered ads capitalize on strong relationships between listeners and hosts, and are native to the show’s format. It’s great up to the point where the line between content and advertising isn’t explicit.

Imagine this: You’re listening to your favorite podcast. The host, who you trust, is discussing an interesting moment of innovation at a car factory. The host cuts to a short interview of a car manufacturer executive that talks about a moment of inspiration. You too feel inspired by the story, glad that you tuned in…until the final line of the segment is delivered, and you realize you’ve been listening to an advertisement. Cue the Uncanny Valley emotions (for me, anyway) of unease, disgust.

We’re not in the early days of podcasting anymore and now most of the time the line between advertising and content is clear. However, it’s still important for us advertisers to remember that creating native content that resonates with audiences is great, but it’s not OK to pass advertising off as something else. We want to captivate our customers, but not at the expense of their trust. 

Homework exercise: Plot the following items on the graph and note your emotions regarding them (do the following as necessary: add emotions, read books and watch movies or shows to experience for yourself).

  • Alexa (from Amazon)
  • Optimus Prime (from The Transformers)
  • Bishop (from Aliens)
  • BMO and BMO’s alter ego, Football (from Adventure Time)
  • Bender (from Futurama)
  • R2-D2 and C-3PO (from Star Wars)
  • Data (from Star Trek, The Next Generation)
  • Google Assistant (from Google)
  • Siri (from Apple)
  • HAL 9000 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey)
  • Klara (from Klara and the Sun)
  • Marvin (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
  • The Terminator, with and without skin (from The Terminator)

Extra credit: List your own robots and objects, plot and assign emotions!

By Erica Chiao
Senior Vice President, Director of Customer and Brand Strategy