Uncanny Valley: Will we ever learn to live with artificial humans?
How Japan's AKB48 has created a new level of artificial human – and what it tells us about the infamous Uncanny Valley.
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But forget conscious-level observations – Dr. Saygin wanted to peer deeper. She had subjects get into a London-based functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, which can track brain activity. Once inside, they watched 12 videos of Repliee performing simple tasks, such as nodding, waving, sipping water, and picking up objects from a table. The subjects then watched the same actions performed by a real woman – in fact the researcher whom Repliee is based on. Finally, they saw a third round of videos, this time starring Repliee with its skin removed to reveal the machine underneath.Skip to next paragraph
The metallic robot and the real woman triggered very similar results. The woman sparked more neural activity, but it mostly occurred in the same regions of the brain.
"It was the android that stuck out," says Saygin. Those scans not only saw a greater response, but watching Repliee also lit up different areas of the brain. The biggest difference lay in the region that connects the visual cortex to the motor cortex. Saygin's team concluded that all this activity must come from the brain getting very confused. The android looked human: Why didn't it move like a human?
"The brain doesn't seem to care about biological appearance or biological motion, per se," she says. "What it wants is for its expectations to be met." The human and robot both played their part. But the android fell somewhere in between – into the Uncanny Valley.
Before taking part in the study, the 20 subjects needed to confirm that they had no experience working with robots and had never visited Japan nor had friends or family there. This precaution was important, Saygin says, because robots play a more accepted role in Japanese culture. For decades, Japan has integrated humanoids into entertainment, manufacturing, and domestic care. The country coined "Uncanny Valley" back in 1970 and could be the first to move past it.
"As human-like artificial agents become more commonplace, perhaps our perceptual systems will be re-tuned to accommodate these new social partners," says Saygin's study.
That's good news for Hollywood. After enough exposure to Repliee, high-definition video games, and the dead-eyed conductor from "The Polar Express" movie, maybe Americans will simply acclimate. Perhaps the Uncanny Valley doesn't need to be surmounted – it just needs to be filled in.
"Or perhaps, we will decide it is not a good idea to make [robots] so clearly in our image after all," the study adds.
Rise of the machines
Not everyone felt the heebie-jeebies around Aimi – a testament to how far computer graphics have come.
"I had no [suspicions] at all," says Yoshida Koki, an AKB48 fan in Kyoto, Japan. "On the contrary, I thought she was real."
The marketing stunt will not affect his opinion of the band, says Mr. Yoshida in an e-mail, but he thinks groups still shouldn't try to trick their fans.
"They should tell them," he says. "After all, one way or another it's going to come to light."
Yoshida echoes the opinions of many fans. It seems the band will face no blow back – at least not in Japan, where it's had eight No. 1 singles in the past two years, including one after the Aimi affair.
While this avatar may be the first computerized starlet to temporarily pass as a human, another singer has taken the stage as a proudly fake pop princess. With cyan pigtails down to her ankles and eyes wider than her fists, Hatsune Miku is undeniably a cartoon. Nonetheless, "she" performs for stadiums of ecstatic fans across Japan – and even had a show in Los Angeles this summer.