Of robots and revulsion

I am generally positive about high technology, and as a science fiction fan I have never had a problem with the concept of androids — until now. Check this thing out:

The guy on the right is not a real person, it’s a very sophisticated robot, called Geminoid DK, created by Japanese researchers. It seriously creeps me out:

Why am I disturbed by this thing instead of curious about it or even sympathetic to it the way I am with Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation? Because, underneath all the makeup, I know Data is a real person. (Plus, the more you think about his character, the more you realize how unintentionally human he is.) But the Geminoid robot? I know it’s not a real person.

There is supposedly an explanation for this revulsion. It’s called the “uncanny valley,” and it says that our feelings of sympathy for a robot are proportional to how human-like it is, up until a point where the similarities rapidly become repulsive. Then as the robot becomes indistinguishable from a human, our feelings of sympathy rise again. The effect is enhanced if the robot moves. The graph below shows what this looks like:

Human emotional response to objects as a function of how human-like they are. (From the Wikipedia entry on "uncanny valley.")

The problem with this explanation is that until now, we haven’t had any robots that were anywhere close to indistinguishable from humans, so there could not have been direct testing of how humans react to such robots. Furthermore, when I showed the video to some relatives, they didn’t think anything of it until they realized it wasn’t human. Then they were horrified. There seems to be something within us that is innately repelled by an object that looks and acts human and yet lacks both animal intelligence and a soul.

I don’t see the Geminoid robot as a wonderful technological breakthrough. In fact, for the first time I am deeply troubled about the prospect of androids ever serving humanity. I don’t think the outcome would be like Data, but something more like the replicants from Blade Runner.

Recommended viewing:

  • Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series
  • Blade Runner

3 thoughts on “Of robots and revulsion

  1. It makes you wonder how we would tell the difference if someone set some of the next generation of these robots loose in the public.

  2. Your question is actually addressed in the movie Blade Runner.

    It’s interesting how so many sci-fi ideas are becoming reality. Except for flying cars. I want my flying car!

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