An example of a function that does not increase continuously is climbing a mountain—the relation between the distance (x) a hiker has traveled toward the summit and the hiker's altitude (y)—owing to the intervening hills and valleys. I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley (Figure 1), which I call the uncanny valley.
Now, however, it is time to turn from these aspects of thematter, which are in any case difficult to judge, and look for some undeniableinstances of the uncanny, in the hope that an analysis of them will decidewhether our hypothesis is a valid one.
My argument draws upon Brian Massumi’s analysis of affect in Parables for the Virtual, Luce Irigaray’s work on gender and language, and Sigmund Freud’s classic essay on the uncanny.
Bible and Critical Theory: ISSN 1832-3391
The uncanny male body, rich in affect but resistant to signification, suggests a new way of understanding embodiment and imagining gender in the Prophets.
Rejecting the association of the masculine with rationality, discourse, and representation, Isaiah 29 offers in its place an unstable male body and an uncanny masculinity positioned in the space outside representation.
Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at thewrist, as in a fairy tale of Hauff’s, feet which dance by themselves, as in thebook by Schaeffer which I mentioned above — all these have something peculiarlyuncanny about them, especially when, as in the last instance, they provecapable of independent activity in addition. As we already know, this kind ofuncanniness springs from its proximity to the castration complex. To somepeople the idea of being buried alive by mistake is the most uncanny thing ofall. And yet psycho-analysis has taught us that this terrifying phantasy isonly a transformation of another phantasy which had originally nothingterrifying about it at all, but was qualified by a certain lasciviousness — thephantasy, I mean, of intra-uterine existence.
The uncanny effect of epilepsy and of madness has the sameorigin. The layman sees in them the working of forces hitherto unsuspected inhis fellow-men, but at the same time he is dimly aware of them in remotecorners of his own being. The Middle Ages quite consistently ascribed all suchmaladies to the influence of demons, and in this their psychology was almostcorrect. Indeed, I should not be surprised to hear that psycho-analysis, whichis concerned with laying bare these hidden forces, has itself become uncanny tomany people for that very reason. In one case, after I had succeeded — thoughnone too rapidly — in effecting a cure in a girl who had been an invalid formany years, I myself heard this view expressed by the patient’s mother longafter her recovery.
As healthy persons, we are represented at the crest of the second peak in Figure 2 (moving). Then when we die, we are, of course, unable to move; the body goes cold, and the face becomes pale. Therefore, our death can be regarded as a movement from the second peak (moving) to the bottom of the uncanny valley (still), as indicated by the arrow's path in Figure 2. We might be glad this arrow leads down into the still valley of the corpse and not the valley animated by the living dead!
We hope to design and build robots and prosthetic hands that will not fall into the uncanny valley. Thus, because of the risk inherent in trying to increase their degree of human likeness to scale the second peak, I recommend that designers instead take the first peak as their goal, which results in a moderate degree of human likeness and a considerable sense of affinity. In fact, I predict it is possible to create a safe level of affinity by deliberately pursuing a nonhuman design. I ask designers to ponder this. To illustrate the principle, consider eyeglasses. Eyeglasses do not resemble real eyeballs, but one could say that their design has created a charming pair of new eyes. So we should follow the same principle in designing prosthetic hands. In doing so, instead of pitiful looking realistic hands, stylish ones would likely become fashionable.
We can also speak of a living person as uncanny, and we doso when we ascribe evil intentions to him. But that is not all; in addition tothis we must feel that his intentions to harm us are going to be carried outwith the help of special powers. A good instance of this is the ‘,’that uncanny figure of Romanic superstition which Schaeffer, with intuitivepoetic feeling and profound psycho-analytic understanding, has transformed intoa sympathetic character in his But the question of thesesecret powers brings us back again to the realm of animism. It was the piousGretchen’s intuition that Mephistopheles possessed secret powers of this kindthat made him so uncanny to her.
Movement-related effects could be observed at the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka, Japan. Plans for the event had prompted the construction of robots with some highly sophisticated designs. For example, one robot had 29 pairs of artificial muscles in the face (the same number as a human being) to make it smile in a humanlike fashion. According to the designer, a smile is a dynamic sequence of facial deformations, and the speed of the deformations is crucial. When the speed is cut in half in an attempt to make the robot bring up a smile more slowly, instead of looking happy, its expression turns creepy. This shows how, because of a variation in movement, something that has come to appear very close to human—like a robot, puppet, or prosthetic hand—could easily tumble down into the uncanny valley.
I think this descent explains the secret lying deep beneath the uncanny valley. Why were we equipped with this eerie sensation? Is it essential for human beings? I have not yet considered these questions deeply, but I have no doubt it is an integral part of our instinct for self-preservation.