Fear of Robots


In this section, I would like to talk about fear of Robots.  As Roboticists we might have a different perception or view of robots to the general population.  We believe that robots are fun and cool in the future but perhaps not everybody shares that view.  I particularly like this advertisement, it was for a Dodge Charger and it came out in 2013. I can’t show you all of the video here but the advertisement is exploiting a general unease in the population about the future of robots and suggesting that we wouldn't want a self-driving car, that it’s going to end very, very badly for human kind.

But then, there are dancing robots that everybody seems to love dancing humanoid robots so here we see three simple humanoid robots doing some choreographed dancing.  So this is a kind of robot that generally doesn't invoke fear and loathing in the general population. [background music]

And then there are robotic movie characters such as Wally and Eve which are quite non-threatening and in fact, quite endearing.  In contrast with robots like this from the terminator franchise which are actually quite scary and intimidating. 

Here we have a scene with a large number of robots; these robots here individually look quite benign, they look quite human like, they have got nice gentle facial expressions but personally, I find this scene rather unsettling and I think it is the fact that it is not just one robot but it is the fact that there is row upon row upon row of robots, which I find unsettling, perhaps also because all these robots look exactly the same.

Here is a very famous robotic researcher with his robotic clone. Some people may have absolutely no problem with an image like this but other people might find such a scene rather unsettling. That leads us to a phenomena which is called the uncanny valley. The uncanny valley is represented by this graph here and on the horizontal access we have an indication of how life like the robot is.

We can go from being not life like at all to completely life like and in the vertical axis we have upwards that we find the robot attractive and downwards we find the robots to be repulsive. Now, the notion of the uncanny valley was first hypothesized by Professor Mori and I had the delightful opportunity to meet him at the IROS conference in 2013.  

So if we consider the uncanny valley hypothesis, what we see is that as the likeness to a human being increases, we find the robots to be more and more attractive.  But at a certain point, we then find that as it becomes more life like we find it to become less attractive, perhaps even to become repulsive. Now as it becomes more life like still, it becomes, again, attractive to us.

And this effect is exaggerated if the robot is moving. Here is a very simplistic humanoid robot it doesn’t look much like a human at all. It’s got some sort of face, it’s got what look like eyes and a mouth and most people have no problem with a robot like this.  It is kind of cute; it is a little bit retro.

If we had a robot that looks like this, looks very, very life-like, most of us would find that quite attractive as well.  But if we have a robot that looks not quite right, something a little bit off, maybe it is something in the eyes is not right, the facial expression is not quite right, we find a robot like this to be actually quite repellent. It is the interesting effect which is called the uncanny valley.  

So what I would like to do now, is to speculate a little bit about where this fear of robots might come from, particularly the fear of robots in human form.  I believe a lot of it is down to cultural baggage and particularly in the western Judeo Christian culture; there are probably echoes of the ancient Jewish legend of the Golem. The Golem was a human-like creature fashioned from clay by a Holy man. The Golem would serve its creators and protect them but occasionally they would run amok and cause great havoc and damage. So the Golem was a mixed blessing, it could do good but it could also do bad.

A more recent influence in western culture, I believe, comes from the story of Frankenstein, Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel in which the creature turns on its creator Dr. Frankenstein, and this story of the creation turning on the creator is the foundation for many, many of the robot stories that we read today in science fiction books and in science fiction movies.

Talking to friends and colleagues in Japan, I get a sense that they are less fearful, less intimidated by machines built in human form. I am going out on a bit of a limb here, but I think the difference is in the cultural baggage; they haven't grown up with the cultural tradition of Golem or the cultural tradition of the Frankenstein story.

I think, in their religious beliefs they can see a life force in all sorts of objects whether they are animate or inanimate. So this is entirely speculation on my part, but I think it is the difference in the cultural heritage of the West and the East that perhaps makes people from Japan more accommodating of robots in humanoid form and it’s certainly where the technological push to create humanoid robots first came from. The West has really being playing catch up when it comes to humanoid robots.


There is no code in this lesson.

We like robots but there’s also an element of fear, perhaps stoked by all those books and movies about our new robot overlords. I’m going to speculate a little about where the fear comes from.

Professor Peter Corke

Professor of Robotic Vision at QUT and Director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision (ACRV). Peter is also a Fellow of the IEEE, a senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and on the editorial board of several robotics research journals.

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