Roxxxy True Companion’s Uncanny Valley

I’ll admit it, I was reading about Roxxxy TrueCompanion on Slate (link). The most interesting thing in the article was not about this new sex robot though, but rather it was its reference to Masohiro Mori’s Uncanny Valley hypothesis. The uncanny valley hypothesis states that we are more empathetic toward robots (or other non-human-entities) as they become more human-like — but only to a point. When robots become nearly human, but just a little bit off or not exactly right, our empathy towards them drops off… into the uncanny valley (see figure after the break, you’ll notice zombies make an appearance at the valley’s nadir). Naturally, one might wonder why the valley exists at all. 

My recent search for “uncanny valley” in a psychology database (PsycINFO)  returned 32 peer-reviewed articles.  One of these articles referenced Terror Management Theory (TMT) and its use in understanding the uncanny valley phenomenon (Kosloff & Greenberg, 2006). TMT is the idea that when confronted with the eventuality of death, we all have implicit emotional reactions that minimize the terror and anxiety about dying (wiki). Kosloff & Greenberg (2006) is actually a response to a robotics paper that co-opted TMT to explain the uncanny valley.

In all, Kosloff & Greenberg are okay with the use of TMT, and agree with MacDorman and colleagues’ that viewing humanlike robots evokes thoughts of death for a couple reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that these human-like robots (androids) are rigid, vacant, and “they remind people of human corpses.” The other reason is that it gives us the feeling that deep down we’re all just “material soulless beings.”

Where the authors and the robot scientists disagree is the value with which they believe androids can help advance psychological science. Some robot scientists believe androids would be better suited in laboratory tests of psychological constructs because of their reliability.  Fortunately, the psychologists disagree.

-Posted by Tyler

  1. Just received a question about how empathy is measured. I’ve done some searching and found empathy can be measured a few different ways. For example:

    Mehrabian and Epstein’s questionnaire consists of 33 items divided into seven subcategories testing for “susceptibility to emotional contagion,” “appreciation of the feelings of unfamiliar and distant others,” “extreme emotional responsiveness,” “tendency to be moved by others’ positive emotional experiences,” “tendency to be moved by others’ negative emotional experience,” “sympathetic tendency,” and “willingness to be in contact with others who have problems.”


  2. That is interesting. It makes me think of the Terminator movies. The more a robot appears human, the more likely it can impersonate us and attempt to infiltrate society- and take over! Perhaps that explains the valley ;o) Eek!

  3. Yeah, I was trying to think of movie examples too. I kept thinking about I, Robot, where the robots had human features (e.g. limbs, bilateral symmetry etc…) but didn’t look human because they were made of metal and didn’t have skin.

    Perhaps to support the uncanny valley hypothesis, there was the one robot that became sentient or whatever and I couldn’t help feel sorry for him as they were about to decommission him.

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