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Why zombies, robots, clowns freak us out

What do zombies and androids have in common? They're almost human, but not quite. That disconnect is creepy, in a way that scientists are searching to understand.

The uncanny valley is the idea that as a robot's appearance becomes more and more humanlike, we don't always respond to it more positively. Rather, there's a point on the scale between robot and human where we are repulsed. If it's mechanical but not entirely human, a robot seems disturbing.

Why would that be? It would make sense that as human likeness increases in a robot, so would our comfort with it. But on a graph showing that relationship, there's a "valley" where this familiarity dips down into creepiness, and then comes back up again with more human characteristics.

You may have experienced feeling this while watching animated movies that incorporate humanlike forms. It's also the reason that you might get freaked out by clowns or by photos of people with extreme plastic surgeries who don't look quite real anymore. Our brains come to an impasse when we see something that resembles a member of our species but just doesn't make the cut.

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Some animators sidestep the issue: in the movie "WALL-E," for example, the main character has eyes but is not very humanlike otherwise; he is clearly a robot. His friend, EVE, looks like a white shape with eyes. Both express emotions clearly but don't try to mimic the human shape or form. And HAL 9000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey" is just a red camera eye, but it too conveys feelings.

But when you get more humanlike, things get weird. Some reviewers were put off by the characters in the film "Polar Express,"for instance.

Then there are the Na'vi in "Avatar," who have many physical human characteristics in addition to morphed features and tails. But they are also blue, creating a sense of "otherness" that may have made them less distasteful to viewers -- in other words, they were sufficiently un-human.

Ayse Saygin, professor at the University of California, San Diego, is using cutting-edge brain science to understand this strange quirk of human nature. Although the idea of the uncanny valley has been observed, there has not been much rigorous scientific experimental work on it, partly because it's hard to get at the heart of the matter objectively.

"Even if we don't actually define it in words, we may be able to find signals for it in the brain," Saygin said.

Saygin and colleagues published a study last year using functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI), looking at what's happening in the brain that might explain the uncanny valley phenomenon. They hypothesized that, at least in part, the effect might result from a violation of the brain's predictions. When we anticipate one thing but see another, we get an error, and that error makes us shy away from the thing we're viewing.

The researchers showed 20 participants some video clips of three "actors" moving in the same ways: a human, an android modeled after the human, and a stripped-down robot (the same android without its humanlike form). Although this is a small sample of people, it is typical for neuroimaging studies, which are expensive and time-intensive.

Something interesting emerged in the results: "The network that normally processes your body movements is more active when you view an android," compared with when you look at a stripped-down robot or a human, Saygin explains.

This could be because the brain has to combine conflicting information, she said.

"Your brain's gonna be like, 'Hey, wait a minute, you told me this was a human, and now this area told me that this is not moving like a human. So, I have to really compute that,' " she said. "That's what we think the uncanny valley might be partially caused by, and we have seen some brain activity that looks like that."

The uncanny valley phenomenon was put forth in an article in "Energy" in 1970 by Japanese robotics expert Masahiro Mori. But before that, Ernst Jentsch wrote about "the uncanny" in a 1906 essay, and Sigmund Freud followed up 13 years later.

Yet the idea is largely based on anecdotes, and researchers such as Karl MacDorman, associate professor of human-computer interaction at Indiana University, are working on experiments to hone in on possible explanations. MacDorman briefly worked with Saygin in Japan.

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In his view, the uncanny valley effect has to do with a mismatch in features of a single animation or robot, with some parts appearing much more humanlike than others. For instance, when a very human-looking head is placed on an obviously mechanical body, that can be creepy. So can a human face with robotic eyes.

"When there are elements that are both human or nonhuman, this mismatch can produce an eerie sensation in the brain," MacDorman said. "It's when different parts of the brain are coming to different conclusions at the same time."

There are other factors that may play in, however.

The uncanny valley effect could have to do with uncertainty about whether a robotic character is truly alive or dead, and even play into our deep-seated fears of death. Alternatively, it may be part of cognitive dissonance, which happens when a person's beliefs are not in line with their behaviors -- for instance, a smoker who berates other smokers.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans have developed an aversion to sickness, and a creepy-looking almost-human might tap into our internal system that warns us against sources of disease. In relation, we evolved to choose mates who are healthy, and weird robots may set off the same warning bells that told our ancestors to stay away from unfit sexual partners.

MacDorman's current focus is on the uncanny valley with respect to empathy: that is, is the uncanny valley phenomenon related to a person's difficulty in identifying with particular computer-animated or robotic characters in films? Does it relate to the impression that these characters are somehow "soulless," and in what ways?

Saygin's ongoing studies make use of electroencephalography, or EEG, which measures electrical activity along the scalp. While fMRI tells where in the brain activity occurs, EEG is better for looking at when -- that is, when in viewing agents with different degrees of humanness do people's brain patterns change. EEG is also much more portable and less expensive. Rather than a big scanner, it involves a cap worn on a person's head.

Researchers may be able to understand the EEG patterns associated with the uncanny valley effect, and people's comfort with various robotic forms. Eventually, this information could be used to help robot developers or animators who don't want their creations to scare people.

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"Instead of asking somebody, 'Do you like this robot?' we could get that information a lot more directly, and faster perhaps, if we can develop these technologies," she said.

Source: http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/11/health/uncanny-valley-robots/index.html

/ About us

Founded by Russian entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov in February 2011 with the participation of leading Russian specialists in the field of neural interfaces, robotics, artificial organs and systems.

The main goals of the 2045 Initiative: the creation and realization of a new strategy for the development of humanity which meets global civilization challenges; the creation of optimale conditions promoting the spiritual enlightenment of humanity; and the realization of a new futuristic reality based on 5 principles: high spirituality, high culture, high ethics, high science and high technologies. 

The main science mega-project of the 2045 Initiative aims to create technologies enabling the transfer of a individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality. We devote particular attention to enabling the fullest possible dialogue between the world’s major spiritual traditions, science and society.

A large-scale transformation of humanity, comparable to some of the major spiritual and sci-tech revolutions in history, will require a new strategy. We believe this to be necessary to overcome existing crises, which threaten our planetary habitat and the continued existence of humanity as a species. With the 2045 Initiative, we hope to realize a new strategy for humanity's development, and in so doing, create a more productive, fulfilling, and satisfying future.

The "2045" team is working towards creating an international research center where leading scientists will be engaged in research and development in the fields of anthropomorphic robotics, living systems modeling and brain and consciousness modeling with the goal of transferring one’s individual consciousness to an artificial carrier and achieving cybernetic immortality.

An annual congress "The Global Future 2045" is organized by the Initiative to give platform for discussing mankind's evolutionary strategy based on technologies of cybernetic immortality as well as the possible impact of such technologies on global society, politics and economies of the future.


Future prospects of "2045" Initiative for society


The emergence and widespread use of affordable android "avatars" controlled by a "brain-computer" interface. Coupled with related technologies “avatars’ will give people a number of new features: ability to work in dangerous environments, perform rescue operations, travel in extreme situations etc.
Avatar components will be used in medicine for the rehabilitation of fully or partially disabled patients giving them prosthetic limbs or recover lost senses.


Creation of an autonomous life-support system for the human brain linked to a robot, ‘avatar’, will save people whose body is completely worn out or irreversibly damaged. Any patient with an intact brain will be able to return to a fully functioning  bodily life. Such technologies will  greatly enlarge  the possibility of hybrid bio-electronic devices, thus creating a new IT revolution and will make  all  kinds of superimpositions of electronic and biological systems possible.


Creation of a computer model of the brain and human consciousness  with the subsequent development of means to transfer individual consciousness  onto an artificial carrier. This development will profoundly change the world, it will not only give everyone the possibility of  cybernetic immortality but will also create a friendly artificial intelligence,  expand human capabilities  and provide opportunities for ordinary people to restore or modify their own brain multiple times.  The final result  at this stage can be a real revolution in the understanding of human nature that will completely change the human and technical prospects for humanity.


This is the time when substance-independent minds will receive new bodies with capacities far exceeding those of ordinary humans. A new era for humanity will arrive!  Changes will occur in all spheres of human activity – energy generation, transportation, politics, medicine, psychology, sciences, and so on.

Today it is hard to imagine a future when bodies consisting of nanorobots  will become affordable  and capable of taking any form. It is also hard to imagine body holograms featuring controlled matter. One thing is clear however:  humanity, for the first time in its history, will make a fully managed evolutionary transition and eventually become a new species. Moreover,  prerequisites for a large-scale  expansion into outer space will be created as well.


Key elements of the project in the future

• International social movement
• social network immortal.me
• charitable foundation "Global Future 2045" (Foundation 2045)
• scientific research centre "Immortality"
• business incubator
• University of "Immortality"
• annual award for contribution to the realization of  the project of "Immortality”.

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