The term "uncanny valley," which refers to the revulsion that humans feel when they see a humanoid robot, has lately been a topic of heated discussion among design engineers, who are increasingly building robots that walk and talk.
More than ever, engineers need to consider the effects on humans as their machines begin to creep into our territory. "If you're going to make your robot human-like, then you've got to make it really, really human," said Tim Root, founder and chief technology officer of VGo Communications Inc., a robot manufacturer, in a recent interview with Design News. "If you miss that, your form factor will be rejected."
Looking at the following slides, it's easy to see how robots are evolving, not only in their ability to do human tasks, but in their appearance. Whether or not they're starting to give us the creeps is another matter, one that varies from person to person.
Click on the image below to start viewing the 16-image slideshow. When you're done, tell us what you think in the comments section below.
Heather Knight, a roboticist and founder of Marilyn Monrobots, is trying to bridge the uncanny valley by adding humor to the robotic repertoire. Her robot, Data, can do imitations of Darth Vader, R2D2, and Buzz Lightyear. (Photo courtesy of Freescale Semiconductor.)
The robot in the picture appears to be a NAO from http://www.aldebaran-robotics.com/. I recently saw a live demo at the FedEx Institute of Technology on the University of Memphis. It is very cute, fully programmable, fairly nimble, has a decent complement of front facing sensors. Marketed as a research platform, it is too small to do much useful real world work, but makes a great $9000 - $16000 toy for testing human reaction to humanoid shaped robots. Everyone I was with wanted one. It recognized its operators face and voice providing a personalized menu of voice activated options in concert with an invisible touch sensor on its head. Part of the demo was dancing to "Thriller". The 'ears' are decent speakers. It remained standing maintaining its balance despite mild attempts to push it over. When it was pushed over, it gracefully stood itself back up the way a human would in about 15 seconds using its hands to assist. It had pressure sensors in its rigid feet that helped it shuffle around obstacles it detected via chest sonar. 'Eyes' are IR receivers with RGB led 'mascara'. I was told it was smart enough not to walk off a ledge, but in this case the floor and table were both white so it could not distinguish between them. It seemed to take over a minute to boot up. The company seems eager to support its users in developing new routines for NAO. Apparently it plays soccer.
If the intent is to replace a human then I think that they robot should sort of look human, but probably with different proportions. I have seen the "robot dog" running with the pack on it's back, and it was a bit strange looking because it had no head. I like industrial robots because they are tools that look like tools, and there is no confusion there. Their appearance is also a constant reminder of how dangerous they can be when they move quickly.
The humanoid looking robots, even the "cute" ones, and the pretty ones, all seem a bit creepy because I understand that their behavior is programmed by programmers, and I am aware that the thought processes of most programmers are somewhat abnormal, at best.
But if you want something really creepy, spend a day alone working in an area with a bunch of crash dummys sitting against a wall just outside of where you are focused. They move around when they think you aren't looking, which is really creepy, since they don't have faces.
I'm OK with robots among us, even highly intelligent ones, as long as they obey Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics. But maybe I'm too easily impressed. Have you ever seen the dancing Elmo toy? He is fairly sophisticated and even picks himself up to stand on his two feet if purposefully knocked over (and yes, he lets you know that he does not like that, maybe that is a little creepy!). see link...Elmo gets up at 48 second mark.
Even if you're goal isn't to make a robot look human, its eyes are still the most important detail. There is something buried in our earliest DNA that says another being is in there if it has eyes that can lock to yours! We sense it in our pets no matter how small their brains may be.
Roboticist, is there really such a word...? Heathers creations are remarkably toy oriented...I don't feel inspired, or threatened by their existence..more amused...Now, when you start talking "Cyborg ", that's when it gets creepy...
Robots should be purpose built, so a robot designed to deal exclusively with humans should at least be the right height with audio input/output at the level of the human head. I think ultimately, robots will be humanoid but there will be a learning curve for humanity to accept this form. Do we enjoy more ordering food at a drive-thru when they incorporate a caricature of a clown head rather than a dead speaker? I think we do.
Similar to the example in the Twilight Zone post, the connection Tom Hank's character makes with the volleyball "Wilson" in Castaway, while fictional, is not far fetched and shows how we humanize inanimate objects. Animate objects are next I guess.
We connect with machines, like cars, motorcycles, hi fi's (my area of expertise), firetrucks, engines etc. We don't name machines that we care for and interact with "Old Betsy" for nothing. I notice that this seems to be a connection characterized mostly by men and machines, not women and machines. Yes, I know there are the exceptions. (I am not a sexist! No - really!)
I don't know if I want an overly familiar machine as an assistant. I think I want a robot to do tasks I want to outsource. If it has an attitude it should be one of subservience, not like "Bender" the bending robot in Futurama, who's attitude could lead me to commit a robotocide. I've heard him say, "Kill all humans" in his sleep. That worries me.
Something I noticed about the photo is that the humanoid robot wearing the necklace and blond hair seems amazingly real. It doesn't seem to have that "dead eye" problem. Who makes that one? Are they customizable?
The only issue with making robots, or any artifically intelligent machine, is that there will come a time when someone somewhere will make the wrong programming steps and then we will truly have something along the lines of Blade Runner, Cherry2000, Terminator, The Matrix, or AI. These stylized doomsday movies have even made it to the child level in G-Force.
All of that aside, I personally feel that too human like is a bad thing. The dead eye look for me would be a little unnerving, but that could be offset by allowing some LED color to glow around the eyes or something similar to that.
I have to say it would be better to see a robot that's designed for more functionality and less life like. Dead eyes/real eyes isn't as important to me as the ability to do the dishes, or clean off the table.
I hope they continue to design for greater and greater functionality and less and less life like focus. It's kind of like all the junk they add to my cell phone. Just get me a phone that doesn't drop calls. I don't care about all those other functions.
Actually, I think there is some advantage to "dead eyes". Personnally, I don't want my machines looking too human. There is a danger that if tools become stand-ins for humans, there may be some unfortunate results.
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