Are humans doomed to find humanoid robots creepy? The widely-accepted "uncanny valley" hypothesis proposes just that. But when Popular Mechanics did an investigative report on this influential theory, they discovered it's not based any scientific research.
Popular Mechanics editor Erik Sofge writes:
Despite its fame, or because of it, the uncanny valley is one of the most misunderstood and untested theories in robotics. While researching this month's cover story ("Can Robots Be Trusted?" on stands now) about the challenges facing those who design social robots, we expected to spend weeks sifting through an exhaustive supply of data related to the uncanny valley-data that anchors the pervasive, but only loosely quantified sense of dread associated with robots. Instead, we found a theory in disarray. The uncanny valley is both surprisingly complex and, as a shorthand for anything related to robots, nearly useless.
At the heart of [Masahiro] Mori's proposed valley is a witch's brew of cognitive dissonance. It's the familiar colliding with the alien. Our primal instincts want to welcome the android into the pack, even while other evolutionary instincts tell us to bash its head with the nearest bone. As highly advanced human beings, we do neither-we stare wide-eyed, our brains sputter, and we leave comments on YouTube calling a robot "creepy."
Mori's paper sounds like a revelation, an academic's articulation of the robot creep factor that so many of us experience. It's a compelling argument. But from the skeptic's perspective, the uncanny valley is a surprisingly easy target: Throughout his entire career, Mori never presented data to support his proposed graph. "It's not a theory, it's not a fact, it's conjecture," says Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at MIT. "There's no detailed scientific evidence," she says. "It's an intuitive thing."
In other words, we have no idea whether people will always find humanoid bots "creepy" or if we'll get used to them once they're ubiquitous. I wonder if, 200 years in the future, people will study the theory of the uncanny valley the way people today study quaint theories about superior and inferior races from the nineteenth century?