Everybody knows that anthropomorphic robots that try to look and act like people are creepy. The Uncanny Valley, and all that. There’s been a bunch of research into just what it is about such androids that we don’t like (watch the video below to get an idea of what we’re talking about), and many researchers think that we get uncomfortable when we begin to lose the ability to confidently distinguish between what’s human and what’s not. This is why zombies are often placed at the very bottom of the Uncanny Valley: in many respects, they directly straddle that line, which is why they freak us out so much.
Most of the time, robots (even the weird ones) don’t end up way down there with the zombies, because they’re usually a lot more obviously not human. The tricky part about robots, however, is that they can manifest “human-ness” in ways that are more than just physical. When robots start acting like humans, as opposed to just looking like them, things can get much more complicated. This is increasingly relevant with the push towards social robots designed to interact with humans in a very specifically “human-y” way.
In a recent paper in the International Journal of Social Robotics, “Blurring Human–Machine Distinctions: Anthropomorphic Appearance in Social Robots as a Threat to Human Distinctiveness,” Francesco Ferrari and Maria Paola Paladino from the University of Trento, in Italy, and Jolanda Jetten from the University of Queensland, in Australia, argue that what humans don’t like about anthropomorphic robots is fundamentally about a perceived incursion on human uniqueness. If true, it’s going to make the job of social robots much, much harder.