Scientists Identify Part of The Brain That Gets Creeped Out By Robots

I’ve never wanted to end something so bad as when I stepped into the grocery store and saw, for the first time, Marty the robot. I know, I know, property destruction is wrong. I didn’t act on it, but seeing those googly eyes peek over the mangoes filled me with a deep and primal blood lust (oil lust?) that’s been locked up in my DNA since before the flood. I saw Marty the robot and I saw that it must not be. So I left before I made a scene. I’m no freedom fighter.

There seems to be a very real and very deep repulsion inherent in humans’ feelings towards robots. We don’t like robots, as evidenced by the growing trend of people acting on that atavistic urge to murder them. But we also aren’t creeped out by all robots equally. There’s a concept called the “uncanny valley” which shows the point of maximum creepiness. A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience  has found the part of the brain responsible for the uncanny valley effect and what’s going on in our primitive monkey brains as we meet our replacements.

The uncanny valley was first described by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. It’s where something, in this case a robot, is made to look like a human but falls a bit short. People tend to like robots more as they become more humanoid, but at a certain point there is a dramatic dip in likability, the so-called valley, before becoming more likable again as they get closer to a perfect facsimile of a human.  According to a new study that has located the part of the brain responsible for the uncanny valley, different people may react to the uncanny valley with varied intensity. This may explain why a robot that’s essentially a rolling traffic cone almost landed me in jail. I blame the googly eyes.

To figure out the physical location in the brain of the uncanny valley, researchers hooked up 21 volunteers to MRI machines and gave them some tests that involved pictures of various kinds of robots and humans combined with likability decisions. In one experiment, the volunteers were shown pictures of humans, artificial humans, android robots, humanoid robots and mechanoid robots, and were asked to assign values to how likable each was. Then they were asked to pick one of these humans or robots to complete a task: selecting a gift that a hypothetical human may like. The volunteers chose either real humans or human-like robots, but they did not choose the robots in which the difference between human and robot was the hardest to make out.

According to the study, researchers found a link between the uncanny valley and both the prefrontal cortex and amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that is the most different from other primates. It’s the part that makes executive decisions that go against our primal urges. It was my prefrontal cortex that weighed the risk-reward balance for murdering Marty the robot. The amygdala is a very primitive part of our brain responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response, fear, anxiety, all those fun things. It was my amygdala that made me want to do a robot murder.

The prefrontal cortex showed a dip in activity when volunteers were shown robots in the uncanny valley, and conversely the amygdala seemed to show more of a reaction to the robots in the uncanny valley.

The researchers think that understanding how humans react to the uncanny valley is key to a future where humans and robots coexist peacefully. According to Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten, from the RWTH Aachen University in German:

“This is the first study to show individual differences in the strength of the uncanny valley effect, meaning that some individuals react overly and others less sensitively to human-like artificial agents. This means there is no one robot design that fits – or scares – all users. In my view, smart robot behaviour is of great importance, because users will abandon robots that do not prove to be smart and useful.”

So regardless of our repulsion, they hope to be able to make robots that even stubborn cranks like myself will tolerate. To that I say: good luck.

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