"What does it mean to be human?" I asked myself. I was staring at an android head in the former family room turned workshop and laboratory of Hanson Robotics. David Hanson, his wife, Amanda, and son, Zeno, had moved upstairs, ceding the ground floor to his start-up robot design and engineering firm known for making some of the most humanlike androids in the world. The research and development in robot consciousness and artificial intelligence that has taken place in this two-story home in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, was equal to that of any university or research center. But I'd been there all day and didn't have my shot yet. I'd placed my lens at every conceivable angle, 360°, had traced the light on the android's face as the sun made its transit from east to west;
Eerie, creepy. When you scan the Internet for the latest advances in robotics, you'll almost inevitably encounter such words in the headline or the first sentence describing the next new development in robot engineering. CB2, one of the most advanced research robots (for its time), is known on the Internet as "creepy baby." There's nothing creepy about CB2 at all. When Minoru Asada, director of the division of cognitive neuroscience robotics at Osaka University in Japan, asked how smarter robots could be built, he decided to build CB2, an infant robot, and study how robots learn. The experiment he designed asked the question, How does a child robot acquire knowledge and gain the ability to perform functions? The first thing Asada's team did was teach CB2 to crawl. But the data they collected said little about robots; rather, it revealed how humans learn. This was a paradigm shift in humanoid science—robots could be used to teach us about ourselves. What's creepy about that?
Yet I would be lying to myself, and you, if I didn't acknowledge that a general fear of robots exists. It's a pervasive theme in science fiction—Metropolis, Westworld, Blade Runner, Terminator—it's the same story over and over again. But what does this tell us, what power do these stories have over us? Are they like Joseph Campbell myths? Do they have the power to shape our thoughts and the culture we live in? It's Saturday morning, you're a child again, you're watching TV. If you're a baby boomer like me, you'll remember for a long time Nazis and evil-looking Japanese were the number one villains and all-around bad guys in the movies and in Saturday morning cartoons. Then, as I remember, it was the early 1980s, possibly coinciding with the Iran hostage crisis, or maybe it started earlier, in the aftermath of the Arab oil embargo, the oil and gas crisis in the early '70s, I started to notice Arabs supplanting Nazis or a Japanese soldier with buckteeth and exaggerated slanted eyes in the role of bad guy and supervillain. One wonders how much of the anti-Arab/anti-Muslim sentiment held by some, particularly post—9/11, was cultivated by this shift of cartoon bad guy. Whether subconsciously or consciously, Hollywood has indisputably played a part in creating stereotypes of the other.
Enter the Uncanny Valley, a hypothesis first posited in 1970 by Masahiro Mori, a professor of engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and published in Energy, the corporate magazine of the Japanese subsidiary of Exxon. As depicted in his graph, the Uncanny Valley plots human emotional response against the degree to which a robot is anthropomorphized. Putting the graph in words, Mori's theory states that as a robot approaches looking human, we experience an increased affinity and comfortableness with it, but the closer it comes but misses being human and alive (a zombie, or prosthetic hand, for example), our response abruptly turns to fear, disgust, revulsion at the failure, the schism. The curve jumps back up to positive and toward infinity when a healthy human is encountered.