In an influential 1970 essay, a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology defined “Uncanny Valley” as “the relation between the human likeness of an entity and the perceiver’s affinity for it.” When robots approach the point of convincing us they’re real people, but don’t quite reach it, we tend to find the experience of looking at them deeply unsettling, Masahiro Mori argues.
Since humanoid robots are made in our own image, we tend to look for ways to relate to them, but our psychological response can shift from empathy to revulsion when they fail to attain a truly lifelike appearance. As the field of robotics continues to advance, observing each new achievement by research and development firms like the Eindhoven Institute of Technology can make us feel like we’re sliding deeper and deeper into that valley, even if we put aside our concerns about the potential for artificial intelligence to become a serious threat to humanity.
We already have robot cleaners, pets, nannies, and butlers, albeit crude ones that don’t quite trigger this seemingly instinctive response. But with convincing humanoid robots just around the corner, what will it take to get past our unease? Artist Vincent Fournier explores the tension between our fascination and fear of robots with “The Man Machine,” a photographic series attempting to make various robots seem more human.
Fournier suggests that the real trouble will come if robots seem like they’re better at everything than we are, making us feel threatened that they might eventually take our places in every way imaginable. But when the robots are humanized, even perhaps a little flawed, we feel more comfortable, crossing “the valley of the strange.”
“I used these notions to create situations, always in balance, a little precarious between two polarities, like a rocking board, between a certain identification on one hand and a certain distance in the other,” says the artist. “For this work I worked a lot with Japanese laboratories. I also made a little film that plays on this ambiguity where robots become more and more human, and humans become more and more like robots, taking the formula of Hiroshi Ishiguro, a famous roboticist.”
The “speculative fiction” photo series shows how robots might evolve to be more of a presence in our day-to-day lives, experiencing some of the same pitfalls and perhaps even emotions that we do. They sit nervously in waiting rooms, navigate art museums, gaze out at nature in contemplative poses, play basketball with children, and undergo tests. Each photo stars a real humanoid robot currently in development, including Honda’s Asimo #2, Takanashi Laboratory’s Kobian Robot #1, life-size 3D-printed robot InMoov #2, and Eindhoven University’s TUlip.
Whether or not the images are disturbing, or interactions with robots like these continue to concern us, might vary depending on our cultural perceptions, adds Fournier.
“Moreover, on the perception we have of humanoid robots, it is interesting to note the very different approach between Asia and Europe. In our culture we generally find the same type of scenario: the demiurge creator, an artist, craftsman, or scientist, creates life from the inanimate, and this new creature, the golem, Frankenstein…ends up rebelling against his Creator. Whereas in Japan, where inanimate things can have a spirit, it is the animism of certain religions, and indeed robots appear as saviors, they come to help people instead of finally destroying them. This could be explained by the fact that these two cultures are based on two different religions: Buddhism and Shintoism on the one hand, Christianity and Judaism on the other.”