The Uncanny Valley

The uncanny valley itself is where dwell monsters, in the classic sense of the word. Frankenstein’s creation, the undead, the ingeniously twisted demons of animé and their inspirations from legend and myth, and indeed all the walking terrors and horrors of man’s imagining belong here. In essence, they tend to be warped funhouse-mirror images of humanity, and many if not most share one or both of a pair of common traits. —Dave BryantThe Uncanny Valley

Bryant presents the work of Masahiro Mori, who noted that people like dolls and toys that represent humans, but that as these items start to look and behave more human, there is a sudden drop in the graph. [Correcting that last bit, which got cut off.]

Now, I’d have to look into Mori’s work more closely to determine exactly what he was measuring, or why he chose to see a connection between these objects:

  1. industrial robot (slightly positive)

  2. android (more positive)

  3. moving corpse (most negative)

  4. prosthetic hand (somewhat negative)

  5. handicapped person (neutral)

  6. bunraku puppet (most positive so far)

  7. unhealthy person (higher than the previous one)

  8. healthy person (even higher)

When you list them in that order, you get a positive “emotional response” curve from the industrial robot to the andriod, and then you get the “uncanny valley” — that is, the huge drop in the graph — for “moving corpse,” followed by an upward sweep towards “healthy person.”

But what is it about a moving corpse that necessitates that it should be placed to the right of an android on the above scale? The “valley” disappears if you simply sort the items in a different order, like this:

  1. moving corpse (lowest)

  2. prosthetic hand

  3. handicapped person (netural)

  4. industrial robot

  5. android

  6. bunraku puppet

  7. unhealthy person

  8. healthy person (highest)

My point is not that Bryant is somehow being dishonest, or that Mori’s work was somehow unscientific. But the choice to arrange objects in order to create a visual “ucanny valley” in the graph of emotional responses is a rhetorical device, designed to draw attention to a particular measurement and to control the context in which that measurement is presented.