Does Sophia the robot inspire revulsion in you? You know, Sophia: the humanoid robot developed by Hanson Laboratories and activated in 2015, who has a title at the UN and has been granted Saudi Arabian citizenship? The one whose cranium is transparent, and who cracks jokes about destroying all humans? Yeah, her.
If Sophia and other humanoid robots like her give you the willies, you are experiencing the well-documented effects of the Uncanny Valley: the phenomenon of near-universal human distaste for things that appear human-like, but are somehow off. (This includes examples like Sophia, some computer animation, and bunraku puppets.)
I say near-universal because of some fascinating research has come out of the University of Michigan recently. This research shows that this unique sense of disgust, long thought to be a natural form of pathogen avoidance (as fellow human looking weird = sick or dying, to our lizard brains), might not be inherent in human experience, but actually learned.
Professor of psychology Henry Wellman and doctoral candidate Kimberly Brink studied a group of 240 children aged 3 to 18. The children were shown videos of three robots of varying humanity: “very human-like,” machine-like, and mostly machine but with human qualities (described as a combination between lovable movie robots Baymax and EVE.) The researchers then asked the children questions about whether they thought each kind of robot had feelings, if they could experience hunger or pain, if they could think on their own, and if they could tell right from wrong. The subjects were also asked if any of the robots creeped them out.
Interestingly, the children younger than 9 reported no feelings of weird loathing — but the children older than nine, like adults, were more horrified the more human the robots appeared.
“So what does this mean about the Uncanny Valley? One feature of our results provides a clue: Children’s attributions of mind to the robots affect how children feel. The younger children preferred a robot when they believed the robot could think and make decisions. For them, the more mind the better. This is in contrast to adults and older children for whom the more robots seemed to have minds (and especially minds that could produce and house human-like feelings and thoughts) the creepier that made them. For adults and older children, a machine-like mind is fine, but a robot with a human-like one is out of bounds. Perceived creepiness is related to a perceived mind.”
So this takes the Uncanny Valley effect out of the evolutionary realm, and locates it in the more complicated territory of individual brain development. As robots become more integrated into our everyday lives, the researchers propose that we think about designing them differently for humans at different ages. That is, a Sophia might be all right assisting kids in a kindergarten class, but would be a deeply unpleasant sight for everyone in a nursing home. Like it or not, we do have to think about these things: as Sophia’s popularity alone has shown us, the robots are coming!