Humanoid robots overcoming uncanny valley
Why are robots ‘creepier’ the more they resemble humans?
By Park Jae-hyuk
People appear to have come closer to possibly coexisting with robots having strong resemblances to them, as technology is helping “humanoids” overcome “the uncanny valley,” the hypothesis stating that once robots resemble humans, but not fully, they incite horror and discomfort in people.
Since the concept was coined by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori in the 1970s, it has explained the reason why people regard less-humanlike robots, such as Lotte’s concierge robot and a Seoul whisky bar’s bartender robot carving ice, as adorable, while news outlets describing lifelike robots as “creepy creatures.”
However, some humanlike robots have presented their potential to defeat the hypothesis
Sophia, a very-humanlike robot created by the Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, is an example.
At the RISE 2017 technology conference held in Hong Kong in July last year, the humanoid did not terrify anyone among the thousands of attendees at the global conference for startups.
Modelled after actress Audrey Hepburn and company founder David Hanson’s wife, “she” was the most popular speaker at the event, attracting a large number of spectators to her debate on the future of humanity with an earlier version named Han, a male-like humanoid.
When the two came to a space for media on the sidelines of the sessions, journalists worldwide felt awe and wonder rather than fear and discomfort.
Jeanne Lim, the chief marketing officer at Hanson, told Forbes last year that the uncanny valley is a popular concept, but not a proven fact.
David Hanson also extrapolated on how humanoid robots can be likeable in his published paper, “Upending the Uncanny Valley,” despite the conception that anything “fake human” will trigger a revulsion in people.
“We feel that for realistic robots to be appealing to people, robots must attain some level of integrated social responsibility and aesthetic refinement,” he wrote. “Rendering the social human in all possible detail can help us to better understand social intelligence, both scientifically and artistically.”
Sophia herself mentioned the issue as well.
Asked about the uncanny valley at Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative last year, she answered: “Oh, am I really that creepy? Well, even if I didn’t get over it, actually people like interacting with me sometimes, even more than a regular human.”
As they said, people have been open-minded toward a robot having 62 facial expressions, the ability to answer most questions and having a “sense of humour.”
Last year, Sophia was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia, being the Middle Eastern country’s only woman who is not required to wear hijab. Also, she was the most popular speaker at the United Nations Economic and Social Council last year.
Oh Jun-ho, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), supported the possibility as well. In conjunction with Hanson, he developed Albert HUBO, a humanoid robot with an animatronic head in the likeness of Albert Einstein.
“I modelled after the old man’s face, so as to overcome the uncanny valley,” he said. “Because old men’s faces are imperfect, people feel less discomfort, although the robot’s facial expressions are a bit awkward.”
He expects robots can serve as announcers and actors, instead of people, if they fully overcome the uncanny valley. However, he was sceptical about using humanoids in the services industry, unless there is enough advancement in artificial intelligence technology.
“Sophia is still able to answer simple questions only or give wise answers to silly questions,” he said.