Into the Uncanny Valley

What We Know / by Joe Kloc /

New findings shed light on a century’s worth of bizarre explanations for the eerie feeling we get around lifelike robots.

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© Sam Jinks, Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne

A dead body appears in almost every way to be a normal human. But the pallid skin and empty eyes signal that the person-shaped form we are looking at is, in a way we can’t even fully grasp, strange and disturbing.

We feel a similar eeriness when interacting with robots and models that look almost human but fall short of convincing us because of subtle peculiarities in their features. Poor box office returns on computer-animated films like “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf” were blamed on moviegoers finding the not quite true-to-life characters unsettling.

Disturbing experiences that feel both familiar and strange are instances of the “uncanny,” an intuitive concept, yet one that has defied simple explanation for more than a century. Interest in the particular occurrences of the uncanny, in which humans are bothered by interaction with human-like models, began as a psychological curiosity. But as our ability to design artificial life has increased—along with our dependence on it—getting to the heart of why people respond negatively to realistic models of themselves has taken on a new importance. Attempts to understand the origins of this reaction, known since the 1970s as the “uncanny valley response,” have drawn on everything from repressed fears of castration to an evolutionary mechanism for mate selection, but there has been little empirical evidence to assess the validity of these ideas.

New findings published in PNAS this September are putting some long-overdue experimental rigor behind the uncanny valley. Last spring at Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute, Asif Ghazanfar developed a computer model of a macaque monkey designed to interact with real macaques. But the monkeys weren’t fooled. Further testing revealed that, much to Ghazanfar’s surprise, his model was eliciting an uncanny valley response from the monkeys. It was the first time scientists had ever observed such a response in a non-human species.

“By showing that monkeys can do it, several things become plausible,” Ghazanfar says. “One is that there is an evolutionary explanation for the uncanny valley and the other is that it is not something specific to our human, cultural experience.” These findings may for the first time allow scientists to go back through a century’s worth of peculiar ideas about the origins of the uncanny valley and begin putting them to the test.

An Eerie History

Sigmund Freud offered the first major attempt to explain our uncanny response toward life-like human models. With World War I still dragging on across Europe in 1918, Freud was having trouble finding article submissions for his psychoanalytic journal, Imago, and so decided to contribute something himself. The following year, he published a bizarre 40-page essay on an almost completely unknown concept in psychology. Freud’s subject was the “uncanny,” a term coined 13 years earlier by a little-known German doctor named Ernst Jentsch.

Titled “The Uncanny,” Freud’s essay is, in nearly every aspect, as strange as the phenomenon it struggles to understand. “There is a lot of contradictory information in there,” says Samuel Weber, a professor of philosophy and literature at the European Graduate School. “If you put it together you realize it doesn’t add up neatly to any unified position.”

For instance, Freud begins with a disclaimer that he hasn’t had an uncanny personal experience in so long that he must “awaken in [himself] the possibility of experiencing it,” implying that he either he wrote some 12,000 words about a psychological phenomenon he has no personal understanding of or he isn’t fully aware of his own familiarity with his subject. Weber sides with the latter interpretation. “It’s not a question of whether what he is doing is invalid, but whether there is more going on there than he wants to—or is able to—acknowledge,” he says.

Freud’s essay is, in nearly every aspect, as strange as the phenomenon it struggles to understand.

Indeed, Freud’s personal life often creeps into his examples of the uncanny. Such is the case as he explains that when he encounters a number—36 or 855, for instance—several times in the same day, he is overcome with an uncanny feeling. This is arguably one of the most universally shared uncanny experiences not involving an interaction with a human model. We are all intimately familiar with numbers, so when we encounter them in a strange context, we respond with a feeling of unease and suspicion.

What is telling about Freud’s use of this example is the number he chose to make his point: 62. According to his official biographer, Ernest Jones, Freud had written much of “The Uncanny” years before its publication but waited until he passed the age of 62 to complete it. Not coincidentally, Freud’s father was 62 when he died. Even while Freud denies any familiarity with the uncanny, he readily plucks examples from his personal life in order to illustrate it. The experience of writing “The Uncanny” must have been, for Freud, a rather uncanny one.

According to Freud, the phenomenon that would later be called the uncanny valley stems from a primitive attempt of humans to skirt death and secure our own immortality by creating copies of ourselves—such as wax figures and, later, life-like robots. He quotes his colleague Otto Rank in saying that this “doubling” behavior is “an energetic denial of the power of death” and suggests the idea of the immortal soul was the first double of the body. Our uncanny response follows from the fact that most of us no longer believe we can secure our own immortality by making copies of ourselves, but we haven’t yet shaken the primitive habit of trying to do so. The sad consequence of this is that, in Freud’s words, “The double reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.” The copies we feel compelled to make only serve to remind us why we began making them in the first place: We are, inevitably, going to die.

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