Pop culture’s uncanny valley

Given Japan’s traditional lead in robotics, it is perhaps no surprise that the all-female Japanese pop idol group AKB 48 has just added a robot to its cast of 61 members. There is a great article over at Atlantic Wire about the synthetic band adding a synthetic member to their group.

It turns out that this kind of advance is both mesmerizing and at the same time evokes the proverbial yuk factor. As robots appear more and more human, we tend to accept them up to a certain point, and then it becomes downright creepy. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese robotics scientist, described the phenomenon as Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) which translates into ‘uncanny valley’, shown in the figure above.

The phenomenon of the uncanny valley is not just something that humans appreciate: it appears to exist in sub-human primates as well. What is not clear is whether given repeated exposure to such golems, humans will become desensitized and the uncanny valley will disappear. After all, when heart transplants were first described, there was both universal astonishment and outrage (a good summary can be found in this pdf); today, in jurisdictions where such procedures are common, heart transplants barely merit mention.

The uncanny valley has also been suggested to be a challenge to acceptance of the types of radical enhancement that transhumanists envision – James Cascio has written a thoughtful piece on the topic, dubbing it the second uncanny valley.

Of course, as with all things, there is nothing new under the (rising) sun. Predating AKB48’s addition of a robot to pop culture, Jonathan Brigg penned a song with the title Bukimi No Tani (the Uncanny Valley). Listen and enjoy.

Image from Steckenfinger and Ghazanfar


2 thoughts on “Pop culture’s uncanny valley

  1. I wonder how the “uncanny valley” might relate to the rejection or acceptance of transgendered people? Perhaps when we are committed to seeing the world through a binary gender lens (i.e., masculine or feminine) any blurring of gender is deeply disturbing. It seems that our society is becoming more accepting of people placing themselves on a gender spectrum: women have been wearing pants for decades, sensitive men are called ‘metrosexual’. Perhaps we will see the emergence of a robot to human spectrum as the uncanny valley fills in?

  2. Pingback: Pop culture’s uncanny valley (via Neuroethics at the Core) | Business, Technology and the Future

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