Today in the news is a story about the creation of a robot named "Kaspar" at the University of Hertfordshire, whose purpose is to help autistic children relate to people better.
Kaspar is programmed not only to respond to speech, but to react when hugged or hurt. He is capable of demonstrating a number of facial expressions, helping autistic individuals learn to connect expressions with emotions in others. The program has tremendous potential, says Dr. Abigael San, a London clinical psychologist and spokesperson for the British Psychological Society. "Autistic children like things that are made up of different parts, like a robot," she said, "so they may process what the robot does more easily than a real person."
I think this is awesome -- autism is a tremendously difficult disorder to deal with, much less to treat, and conventional therapies can take years and result in highly varied outcomes. Anything that is developed to help streamline the treatment process is all to the good.
I am equally intrigued, however, by my reaction to photographs of Kaspar. (You can see a photograph here.)
On looking at the picture, I had to suppress a shudder. Kaspar, to me, looks creepy, and I don't think it's just associations with dolls like Chucky that made me react that way. To me, Kaspar lies squarely in the Uncanny Valley.
The concept of the Uncanny Valley was first formalized by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, and it has to do with our reaction to non-human faces. A toy, doll, or robot with a very inhuman face is considered somewhere in the middle on the creepiness scale (think of the Transformers, the Iron Giant, or Sonny in I, Robot). As its features become more human, it generally becomes less creepy looking -- think of a stuffed toy, or a well-made doll. Then, at some point, there's a spike on the creepiness axis -- it's just too close to being like a human for comfort, but not close enough to be actually human -- and we tend to rank those faces as scarier than the purely non-human ones. This is the "Uncanny Valley."
This concept has been used to explain why a lot of people had visceral negative reactions to the protagonists in the movies The Polar Express and Beowulf. There was something a little too still, a little too unnatural, a little too much like something nonhuman pretending to be human, about the CGI faces of the characters. The character Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, however, seems to be on the uphill side of the Uncanny Valley; since he was played by a human actor, he had enough human-like characteristics that his android features were intriguing rather than disturbing.
It is an open question as to why the Uncanny Valley exists. It's been explained through mechanisms of mate selection (we are programmed to find attractive faces that respond in a thoroughly normal, human way, and to be repelled by human-like faces which do not, because normal responses are a sign of genetic soundness), fear of death or disease (the face of a corpse resides somewhere in the Uncanny Valley, as do the faces of individuals with some mental and physical disorders), or a simple violation of what it means to be human. A robot that is too close but not close enough to mimicking human behavior gets caught both ways -- it seems not to be a machine trying to appear human, but a human with abnormal appearance and reactions.
Don't get me wrong; I'm thrilled that Kaspar has been created. And given that a hallmark of autism is the inability to make judgments about body and facial language, I doubt an Uncanny Valley exists for autistic kids (or, perhaps, it is configured differently -- I don't think the question has been researched). But in most people, facial recognition is a very fundamental thing. It's hard-wired into our brains, at a very young age -- one of the first things a newborn baby does is fix onto its mother's face. We're extraordinarily good at recognizing faces, and face-like patterns (thus the phenomenon of pareidolia, or the detection of faces in wood grain, clouds, and grilled cheese sandwiches, about which I have blogged before).
It's just that the faces need to be either very much like human faces, or sufficiently far away, or they result in a strong aversive reaction. All of which makes me wonder who first came up with the concept of "clown."