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Explain the Uncanny Valley in Less Than 1 Minute. Go!

We gave these experts a minute to explain the Uncanny Valley. Here's how they did

1 min read
Explain the uncanny valley
Image: IEEE Spectrum

The Uncanny Valley is a topic of much fascination not only in robotics, where it originated, but also in other scientific circles as well as in popular culture. Roboticists often allude to it, and so do computer scientists, psychologists, artists, and media theorists. In 2008, it was mentioned in the TV series "30 Rock." More recently, the Uncanny Valley was used to explainwhy several animation moviesfailed, and an Atlantic article referred to it to describe Mitt Romney. The term has also been used to name everything from a literary magazine to a painting of a baboon embracing Nicolas Cage. Some even suggest that the Uncanny Valley has become a meme. But just what is the Uncanny Valley?

At a recent robotics gathering in Japan we had the perfect opportunity to ask that question. "The Uncanny Valley Revisited" was a tribute to Masahiro Mori, the robotics professor who came up with the concept in 1970. The event featured speakers with a wide range of backgrounds. At the end we cornered some of the presenters and asked them to explain the Uncanny Valley in less than a minute.  Here's how they did. 

Our intrepid explainers are: Minoru Asada, a robotics professor at Osaka University; Ken Goldberg, a roboticist and artist at UC Berkeley; Hiroshi Ishiguro, a robotics professor at Osaka University; Elizabeth Jochum, co-founder of University of Copenhagen's Robot Culture and Aesthetics Research Group; Peter Lunenfeld, a professor of media design at UCLA; Marek Michalowski, co-founder of BeatBots; and Todd Murphey, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University.

If you think you have a good and short explanation, post it on the comment section below.

Image: Montage via Fotor

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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

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In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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