Designing Humanoid Robots? Steer Clear of Uncanny Valley
Robotics, by nature, is an exceptionally multidisciplinary field, combining mechanics, electronics, software, and many more disciplines into a single application. And when we begin to consider humanoid robots, the conversation becomes even more interesting.
Humanoid robotics bring a new discipline into the mix: psychology. In mimicking human structure, behavior, and motion, humanoid robotics are subject to many psychological considerations that can have major implications on their design from an aesthetic and functional perspective.
One of the most profound psychological phenomena in the field of robotics is the concept of the uncanny valley.
Arising from research in the 1970s, the uncanny valley describes the fact that, as robotics become more realistic, they become more appealing to humans—to a certain degree. Once we cross into a certain area of realism, humans begin to feel discomfort around a humanoid robot to the point of extreme unease and repulsion. This level of realism is where extreme discomfort resides in the uncanny valley.
This psychological phenomenon is an important consideration, because in order to achieve widespread adoption of humanoid robots, humans must accept them on a personal, functional, and psychological level. Even if a humanoid robot can do all of its tasks perfectly, efficiently, and safely, the technology will never be broadly adopted if humans feel emotionally uncomfortable around it.
In this sense, we can use the concept of the uncanny valley as a guideline for designing humanoid robots that will be accepted by humans on an emotional level.
When it comes to the uncanny valley, the ultimate goal from the design side is to stay out of the valley entirely. This is easier said than done because it’s something that’s not necessarily measurable—it’s more about a feeling that people have. Despite this, we know of certain qualities that definitively evoke negative emotions from humans in this context. One major aspect of the uncanny valley is aesthetics. Put simply, when robots start to have soft features that closely resemble that of the human face, limbs, and body, we start to feel uneasy. Mentally, the semblance of a human body that is not quite human is something we humans generally find very unsettling.
Fortunately, there are approaches to overcoming this challenge. A popular technique is to make robots look just different enough from humans to remove the uncanny feeling that humans might experience. Many robotics companies do this by designing their humanoids to look unhumanly cute or cartoonish.
The aesthetics of a robot also work toward communicating to humans what they should expect of the robot’s behavior and intelligence. The more human a robot looks, the more someone interacting with the robot will expect it to demonstrate human-like behavior and intelligence.
Another dimension that influences the uncanny valley is the way the robot moves.
In terms of robotic motion, many very nuanced interactions influence how people feel about the robot and the interaction. Motion can include qualities as simple as how the robot moves its arm: Is it natural? Is there jitter? Does it take an unexpected path?
At the heart of it, research shows that to avoid the uncanny valley with respect to motion, the humanoid must be designed to move in a trajectory that looks intuitive to humans. Here, more than fluidity, effective design boils down to predictability. Humans tend to feel comfortable around things that match expected patterns, and making a humanoid robot that moves in a predictable manner, even if it’s not necessarily human-like, goes a long way toward avoiding the uncanny valley.
Cultural influence of humanoid robots
For reasons still largely unknown, elements of the uncanny valley that make certain cultures uncomfortable around humanoid robots may not have the same impact on other cultures. For example, Japanese engineering firms have produced some of the world’s most realistic and humanoid robots in the world with respect to facial features, skin texture, and hair. In many Western cultures, this level of realism has been avoided due to the uneasy feeling that it evokes, but it seems to have not been as much of an issue in Japan.
Hence, the uncanny valley has more dimensions and levels to it than originally imaginable. Perhaps more importantly, no hard and fast rules can be put in place to guide the design of humanoid robots. What one person feels comfortable around may make another uneasy.
At the end of the day, the best way to avoid the uncanny valley is to stay clear of it altogether and build a safe buffer into the design that makes the humanoid robot more universally accepted.
To ensure a future where robots are not only functional but accepted on an emotional level, we must learn to be intentional about aesthetic design and user experience and be particularly mindful about their proximity to the uncanny valley in order to design something that humans will feel safe and comfortable around.
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