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Study shows why human-like robots give people the creeps


July 18, 2011

A recent study offers a suggestion as to the cause of our unease when seeing realistic, human-like robots (Photo: Streevithak, via Flickr)

A recent study offers a suggestion as to the cause of our unease when seeing realistic, human-like robots (Photo: Streevithak, via Flickr)

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People seem to enjoy watching robots and cartoon characters move about, and usually don't mind seeing other humans going through their daily motions, but when it comes to artificial creations that are made to look very human ... they're not always so popular. Although we tend to like animated objects or images that look kind of like real people, once they reach a certain level of realism, they just become spooky. This threshold is known as the "uncanny valley," and an international team of researchers recently set out to determine just what it is about our brains that causes it to occur.

The study was led by Ayse Pinar Saygin, an assistant professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. Twenty test subjects between the ages of 20 and 36 were used, none of whom had worked with robots, or spent time in Japan, where human-like robots are more common than in most countries.

These people were shown 12 videos of the Japanese Repliee Q2 android (pictured above), doing things such as waving, nodding, taking a drink of water and picking up a piece of paper. They also watched videos of the human that the robot was modeled after performing those actions, along with videos of the robot performing them without its skin covering, so it didn't look human.

When viewed through a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, the activity of the subjects' brains suggested that a conflict arose when they were viewing the footage of the lifelike version of the android. More specifically, activity was noted in their parietal cortex, which connects the part of the brain that processes body movements with a section of the motor cortex that is believed to help us relate to such movements. In short, Saygin believed that there was a disconcerting difference between the way in which the test subjects expected the android to move, and the way in which it did move.

"The brain doesn't seem tuned to care about either biological appearance or biological motion per se," she said. "What it seems to be doing is looking for its expectations to be met - for appearance and motion to be congruent." She added that perhaps androids and lifelike animated film characters should be run past human volunteers while still in development, to see what kind of response they elicit.

Although it would be impractical to routinely conduct such tests using volunteers in an expensive fMRI scanner, Saygin and her team are now looking for an electroencephalogram (EEG) signal that corresponds to the uncanny valley response, which could be detected using inexpensive EEG technology.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

I\'d guess this stems from evolution - we are instinctively repulsed by anything that in the deep past has lessened our survival chances (obviously...). \"Fake humans\" remind me of disabled and/or retarded humans. I bet they\'d get the same fMRI response from those, although I doubt they\'d get permission to conduct any such study in todays clime of political correctness :-)


I am a photographer and I\'ve noticed similar things about what we actually expect to see, or assume exists in photographs. I have one long shot of a seafront which I then cropped to focus on a single family. When viewed at actual size everything looks fine, hair looks silky, eyes look bright - it\'s a \'good\' photo. However, zoom in just a couple of clicks and we are at pixel level, eyes are just a few pixels etc. What I\'m saying is that we interpret far more than we actually see. We very quickly notice a person acting \'strangely\' (slight body language signals, unexpected eye contact), even at quite a distance. This all must have to do with survival instinct and the ability to detect unfamiliar movements in the blink of an eye.

Malcolm Pemberton

Doctor Who covered this in the Tom Baker-era classic \"Robots of Death\", where the lack of normal body language in the story\'s androids slowly drove certain people nuts with \"robophobia\". Man, one more reason to love that show!

Steve Lee

It\'s pretty well established that very large areas of the brain are devoted to hands and faces. Robots would provably look less disturbing wearing sun glasses and gloves. As for why these things freak us out when they are just a little wrong, robotic movements often look similar to the movement of someone with a brain injury, and since some brain injuries are related to deadly disease or poison it would make sense to have a fear response to this in another human. By contrast, people familiar with machines will expect this kind of motion in something non-human.

As much as I admire the design of humanoid robots, I also have to say that part of the \"creep factor\" is that these robots are designed by engineers more than by artists. Replicating eyes, hands, and muscle shape that don\'t freak people out difficult, but certainly possible tasks.

Charles Bosse

@christopher: Don\'t forget about diseases like rabies than effect movement and are highly contagious. This is probably a better reason to avoid those who don\'t act \"right\".


A lot of this also has to with neurotic insecurity.

After being bombarded with all kinds of creepy \"sci-fi\" that is really just hi-tech horror, many people have been neurolinguistically altered.

Younger children don\'t have anywhere near the same predisposition.

I\'d say it\'s more \"environmental than hereditary\".


Children typically don\'t have the same predisposition.

People have been inundated with a lot of bad \"sci-fi\" that\'s really just hi-tech horror.

I think it\'s more \"environmental than hereditary\".

If the android was impeccable, would the creep factor only come in to play once the subject is informed?


The more something looks human-but-not-entirely-human, the more it looks like a dead human, and that\'s always going to make people feel uneasy. How hard it that to understand? Everyone who talks about the Final Fantasy and Polar Express movies talks about the characters having \"dead eyes\".

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