Into the Uncanny Valley: Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Geminoids and Telenoids

Why do we possess an instinctive fear of androids? Are we prepared for the questions and issues these robots inspire?

You may or may not be familiar with the uncanny valley. It is the theory that robots and animated figures produce strong discomfort in people when they fall slightly short of passing for human. Figures that do not have human attributes do not produce this discomfort. Adding human attributes at first increases empathy in the observer, until at some point a line is crossed, rendering the figure too human for comfort. The lifeless face of the mannequin is rendered more terrifying by putting it in motion. No one completely understands what disturbs us so. Is it the facial expression, the coordination or something in the eyes? Is it possible to make a robot or an image on the other side of the valley, one which is so like us that we would consider befriending it?

Scientists, engineers and animators have been working to resolve this issue. Our generation is able to conceive of a character in an animated film or game that looks completely human, of a robot that looks and feels exactly like us, and yet the valley is getting deeper and darker. Recent experiments with androids that have faces and skin have produced creepier and creepier robots. The most marketable humanoid robots today are either mechanized creations that perform specific tasks but have little personality or those that seem to be patterned after children’s toys, with non threatening faces and no skin.

CCLI by vanillase on wikimedia commons

© vanillase with CCLicense

Hiroshi Ishiguro is the Director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University in Japan. He has been making humanoid robots for years, including the female looking Geminoid™ F and the male looking Geminoid™ HI-1, patterned after himself. Both of these robots are at the cutting edge of the uncanny valley.

Video via jennymanda on YouTube.

Ishiguro’s latest model might be considered a sidestep. It is less human, but I’ll let you decide if you think it is less creepy. Meet the Telenoid R1, a portable android that can “transfer” a person’s presence. That person can transmit their own movements and words into the robot via laptop. The Telenoid is described as “a minimalistic human” and consists of a torso with a neck, head and face. If you feel inclined, it is quite huggable, the size of a child with soft and pleasant skin. In order to be better able to picture the essence of the person using it, it is designed to look both old and young and both male and female. The hope is that the Telenoid will become a comforting extension of that person. Perhaps a mother would be able to soothe her children from a distance using a Telenoid. Would you feel soothed?

Video via fhSPACEtv on YouTube.

Ishiguro’s Telenoid may help us understand what it is about androids that gets under our skin. Maybe our understanding of the valley is imprecise. What if what waits on the other side isn’t a more human robot, but something else?

Want to see the latest sales strategy for the Telenoid? Look here.