By Toby Shannon, Science in Society Officer at the British Science Association


Popular culture has a complicated relationship with the idea of robotics – for each lovable character like Disney’s Wall-E and Star Wars’ R2-D2, there’s a Terminator ready to wreak havoc. Why do some robots provoke a positive reaction and others don’t? And what does this mean for the future of robotics in society?

The uncanny valley

One explanation for this reaction to a robot’s appearance is the uncanny valley theory – a graph that plots a robot’s likeness to a human against how comfortable people are with it; developed by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori.<--break->

When a robot (like a mechanical arm in an automotive production line) has very little resemblance to a person, there is very little interest in it one way or the other. As its resemblance to a person increases, we begin to notice these human-like touches and the robot becomes endearing – the relationship with the robot becomes much more positive. However, as its human-like characteristics increase even further, we suddenly become uncomfortable with it – dramatically, the balance shifts between being a robot with a human-like quality to being a human that’s somehow “gone wrong”.

This dramatic drop in familiarity with the robot is known as the uncanny valley theory: people stop seeing the features that make it more relatable and can only notice the inhuman traits that make it unfamiliar.

Reacting to robots

The Boston Dynamics Big Dog video on YouTube has had nearly 15 million views as of May 2013 and it depicts the Big Dog robot being tested on a variety of terrain. Big Dog is a four-legged walking robot that can handle walking through snow, over ice, across rough ground and clamber over a pile of broken bricks. The robot is even given a hefty kick from its operator to show it recovering after an unexpected encounter. The robot is described by the manufacturer as being the “The Most Advanced Rough-Terrain Robot on Earth”.

It is technologically astonishing but there is something very “other” about the robot – the legs look eerily like two pairs of human legs carrying the robot body along and the sound that the mechanism makes is rather like a swarm of angry bees. The comments on the video reflect this:

“It's strangely cute at the same time as being horrifyingly creepy...”

Would it hurt them to put some little shoes on it, it would help alot [sic] with the creepiness”

Presumably, if this robot was going to interact with people on a regular basis, for example on search and rescue missions, the uncanny valley would have to be overcome somehow to avoid an extremely negative reaction.

The future

The Eight Great Technologies report outlines robotics as a key area of growth and has the potential to revolutionise the UK’s economy and society. One such application is the concept of a domestic robot to help the elderly or infirm – a concept currently being developed in Japan and playfully explored in the recent film Robot & Frank where a retired thief and his robot companion go on a crime spree. Will this technology make the (relatively small) leap from science fiction to a commonplace feature in daily life? Will a robotic companion collect children from school, walk the family dog and check in on elderly relatives?

Public attitudes to robotics

A large-scale, Europe-wide study into public attitudes to robots and autonomous system was undertaken by the European Commission in 2012: Special Eurobarometer 382: Public attitudes to robots. The report explores how the public views robotics in various situations ranging from domestic and the workplace to healthcare and within the military. This report showed strong opposition to the idea of robots taking the job of carers: 61% of UK respondents (matching the EU average) identified this area along with education and healthcare (other areas where vulnerable individuals may be placed in the care of robots) as an application of robotics that should be banned.

This concern is repeated with 62% uncomfortable with the concept of robots performing medical operations, 64% uncomfortable with the concept of robots walking their pet dog and 90% uncomfortable with the idea of children or elderly parents being cared for by a robot. Perhaps the “creepy” image of (human-like) uncanny robotics is to blame for this strong opposition?

The uncanny valley theory has some strong implications for the future of consumer robotics and the shape that these robots might take. Perhaps a less objectionable solution is to embed autonomous systems within the fabric of a building – a system to discreetly and unobtrusively check that the house of a vulnerable person is warm enough or that the fridge is filled?

Will the robots of the future be cute, uncanny or maybe entirely invisible?