The Uncanny Valley

Illustration by Ed Appleby
Illustration by Ed Appleby

What it is and how technology created it

By Brittney MacDonald, Life & Style Editor


Technology is an ever advancing life unto itself. So for the modern millennial, who has been made to witness and adapt to the advances in technology, it becomes difficult for to imagine a time when we’d ever be frightened or unnerved by it.

The Uncanny Valley is a theory dictating that, as human replicas in animation and robotics advance and become more human in appearance, the differences that actual humans perceive between the replica and a real human will automatically repulse and unnerve us. The theory states that humanoid robots and animation draw us in and we empathize with them, but only to a certain point. As the likeness increases, we become more empathetic, until we reach a tipping point when those feelings are automatically negated, and we instead become repulsed. However, if the robot or animation subject surpasses that point of negativity, then we automatically relate to it again. If you were to graph our emotional response along the lines of human likeness, then the graph would take a severe dip before recovering—hence the term “valley.”

Now, normally, as humans we tend to relate to creatures we see that are alike to us. We can see this affinity in our tendency to anthropomorphize primates. We do this without any stipulation, no matter what differences we see. So this makes the Uncanny Valley a unique situation relegated to technology alone.

The theory was first introduced by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, and since then the majority of people working in the robotics and animation field accept the existence of the Uncanny Valley as truth when developing subjects with human likeness.

What makes the Uncanny Valley particularly interesting is that the “valley” moves. Of course, the response varies from person to person, but the general average of where the valley is usually is around the same point for all people. This average, however, shifts as technology advances, and we become more used to seeing human replicas at certain stages based off of what technology was capable of producing at the time. So where the valley was when Mori first introduced the theory in 1970 is nowhere near where it is today.

There are many theories as to why the Uncanny Valley exists, but all of them relate to aspects of our primal psychology. When I refer to “primal,” I am referring to the particular brand of psychology that deals with our sense of identity and humanity—something that is innate, as opposed to learned or cultivated.

Some theorists believe that the Uncanny Valley exists due to our mating instinct. We relate to the subject on a human level subconsciously, but are aware of their inability to reproduce, so we are repulsed by the replica by instinct in order to avoid forming emotional attachments to something we cannot successfully mate with. This idea is a little problematic, because it automatically assumes that all humans are ingrained with the desire to reproduce, which is debate worthy unto itself.

Another theory suggests that the Uncanny Valley is inspired by the replica’s permeance, and therefore reminds us of our own mortality. The most popular theory, and the one I personally find the most compelling, is that the existence of a human replica in robotics or animation with an almost identical resemblance to an actual human forces us to question what being human actually means. This is referred to as the “sorites paradoxes,” and it is defined by witnessing something that hybridizes human and non-human traits, and finding that it undermines our human identity specifically because we see humanity as unique, and therefore cannot comprehend something that can be both human and not human at the same time. This is linked to another theory that states that we perceive things that challenge our human identity as a threat to it. This is in no way a complete list of theories, but these theories seem to be the ones most widely accepted and discussed on a professional level.

Moving on from causes, you might be wondering how this relates to modern technology. Well, the discussion around the Uncanny Valley came into prominence once more with the recent large-scale release of Virtual Reality (VR) gaming systems. Though VR has been around for years, this year has seen it become more readily available and affordable for the public at large. This has prompted an extreme increase in specifically VR or VR compatible games of all genres, including ones that portray humans. Its inability to avoid the Uncanny Valley was a huge point of criticism for the VR enabled Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. Moving forward, we can expect to see a boom in simplistic animation in regards to VR games, until we reach a point in technology and development where we can successfully surpass the revulsion of the valley, and produce something that, once again, allows us to relate to the appearance of a replica with familiarity and empathy.