Is the "uncanny valley" a myth?

The "uncanny valley" is that creepy Final Fantasy feeling when a robot or CGI character is too dead-eyed to be believable, but too realistic to be cute. Roboticists and animators have long tried to avoid creations that induce this psychological state. But maybe they've been worried about nothing.

Roboticist Masahiro Mori invented the idea of the uncanny valley back in the 1970s, when he created a chart showing an enormous dip in people's comfort levels around humanoid robots that were almost lifelike but not quite perfect.

Is the "uncanny valley" a myth?

And Mori's idea has been law among roboticists and animators for years, as they try to avoid freaking people out with creations that remind us of corpses and zombies (which you can see are at the bottom of that uncanny trough).

But now some scientists are finding that people are no longer having that creeped-out response to lifelike automatons.

Rose Eveleth writes on the BBC:

A few studies have asserted that the whole thing doesn’t exist. In one study, David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, in Plano, Texas, and his colleagues showed participants images of two different robots that were animated to simulate human-like facial expressions. The survey simply asked the participants what they thought of the experience. The vast majority (73%) liked the human-like robots. In fact, not one person stated that these robots disturbed them.

Hanson and his team then showed the participants a continuum of images, starting with a picture of Princess Jasmine taken from the Disney movie Aladdin. Over the course of six images, Jasmine’s face slowly morphed into that of actress Jennifer Love Hewitt. The idea of these facial progression studies is to try to observe the dip in likeability that Mori predicted between an obviously cartoon image and an obviously human one. The participants were asked to rank the acceptability of each picture in the series. But, again, rather than see a dip in the scores in the middle of the range – as the uncanny valley would predict – none of the images seemed to bother anyone.

Why this happened isn’t clear, and not everyone thinks Hanson’s experiment is robust. Many other studies have shown the opposite. For example, Edward Schneider’s lab at SUNY Potsdam in New York collected 75 existing characters from video games and animation, including Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse, Snoopy and Lara Croft. They asked participants how human and how attractive (or repulsive) they perceived each character to be. In this case, the researchers did find a dip in likeability in the middle of the series, roughly where the ogres from World of Warcraft sit.

Moreover, a team lead by Karl MacDorman at Indiana University conducted an experiment similar to Hanson’s, using a progression of images in which a robot face slowly morphs into a human one. They, too, found a U-shaped dip in likeability in the middle of their 11-image series.

Is this a generational difference between people who grew up in the 1990s, with robots and CGI, and Mori's generation who grew up in the 1960s?

Annalee Newitz is the author of the book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.