A century ago, psychologists identified “the uncanny” as an experience that seems familiar yet foreign at the same time, causing some sort of brain confusion and, ultimately, a feeling of fear or repulsion. Originally no more than a scientific curiosity, this psychological effect has gradually emerged as a profound problem in the fields of robotics and computer animation.
The most familiar things in the world to us — the voices, appearances and behavior of humans — are being replicated with increasing veracity by animators and robotics engineers. Today’s ultra-lifelike androids and computer-rendered humans would seem to bridge the valley between the land of the living and the distant cartoon world occupied by Disney princesses and animé characters. But these characters aren’t so much bridging the valley as falling into it. When we look at them, they seem at once familiar and eerily alien, triggering an uneasy feeling.
The spooky region occupied by these characters — so close to us and yet so far — is known as “the uncanny valley.”
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