The “Uncanny Valley”

March 6, 2010 at 11:30 am (By Amba)

I love that term.  It’s used in robotics and animation for the uncrossable gap between a synthetic and a real human being, especially a human face. When you see a simulation that’s too real, but not quite real, it badly creeps you out.  You’ve fallen into the uncanny valley, a place where a child will cry with terror.

When I read about the concept, I immediately flashed on two ads, one for the brand of eye drops called Restasis and another for some brand of smart phone.  In each ad, a beautiful young woman (in the Restasis ad, a red-haired, green-eyed doctor; in the phone ad, a smooth-haired, milky-skinned blonde late-teenager) is serenly commending the product.  She is radiant and soothing and perfect — too perfect.  Possibly “replica-based,” perfected copies of real people, these are the closest simulations of a human face that I’ve ever seen — tryouts for the much-touted coming Hollywood movies with fully animated actors (“synthespians”) — but they don’t make it out of the uncanny valley, and how very close they come paradoxically fills you with dread.  (A message-board member on the Restasis doctor:  “I just saw the commercial again. Man! I bet that lady has a pair of 3 foot cockroach wings underneath her labcoat. Something is definitely not human with her, but it’s hard to put your finger on. Plus, her eyes are weird as shit. She’s a freak.  If she went on a mercy mission to Haiti they’d think she was a voodoo witch doctor.”)  You feel you narrowly escaped being fooled, and that being fooled would somehow be chillingly dangerous.

The article at the first link above tries out physical, evolutionary, and existential explanations for that dread; all are enlightening, none is quite sufficient.  I had a kind of nightmare fantasy as a child of my mother being replaced by someone (or something) that looked and sounded exactly like her, but wasn’t.  This is the same fear that drives the legend of the doppelgänger, the endless reincarnations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the neuropsychological disorder called Capgras syndrome (which people with J’s illness can have).  Why is this notion so horrifying?

My sense is that it has something to do with the life-and-death importance of trust and the leap of faith we must make with every assumption of authenticity; something, even, to do with a subliminal awareness that our perceptions are not as direct as they seem, but are the constructions of a nervous system that is itself not entirely trustworthy.  “Reality” is in fact a fragile thing.

(Hat tip:  Carl Zimmer)


  1. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Hmm. You know, I’m pretty sure the redhead is real. At least, the TV ads include a little chiron footnote to the effect that Dr So-and-So is a real doctor but paid endorser, and she’s on Flickr.

    Am I so hypocaffeinimic I’m missing the point?

  2. amba12 said,

    Charlie, I suspect the doctor in the ad is a “replica-based synthespian” — the real doctor’s image digitally reproduced, using motion capture. That’s even more invasion-of-the-body-snatchers than if she were just a fictional person.

  3. amba12 said,

    That said . . . I need more coffee.

  4. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Alternate explanation: no acting classes in medical school?

  5. Maxwell said,

    and another for some brand of smart phone

    You’re talking about those Palm Pre ads with the redhead, aren’t you? Yeah, those creep me out. She’s meant to be sexy, but all those awkward pauses make it sound like she’s got a rusty tape player stuck in her back.

  6. karen said,

    The Dr has a wide-eyed look and she never blinks. UN-natural.

    I heard this ~Uncanny~ subject on NPR- and i like your version of the ~reality = connection w/ life/death~ opinion better than theirs(probably ’cause i was thinking on those lines, meself).

    I was thinking that– there’s something creepy about something you see… knowing that it isn’t really alive. They(whoever was explaining on npr) felt it symbolized our future and we were afraid we would be replaced- if i understood it all- but, i feel it was something trying to trick us, something that was supposed to be real, but we knew there was something off. I like the word something, today.

    Yeah, what you said:0).

  7. Mike said,

    Come now. The doctor is real. She has unusual, very light irises. She does not blink, which people can be trained to do. But the problem is that her pupils are so small and the irises light enough to make you unpleasantly aware of this all the time. Humans know that small pupils means that you don’t like that you are seeing or doing. It’s body language. If she were out in bright sunlight, we would not react that way, but out body language firmware developed before artificial light.

    The agency really screwed the pooch with this one. Or did they? We remember the commercial and the product, though we are unlikely to spend money on so ephemeral a product as tear stimulants.

  8. Donna B. said,

    I never gave much thought as to why, but both my husband and I have said, “That’s a horrible commercial.”

    But it’s not just the appearance. Her speech sounds fake too. I’ve only seen the commercial a few times, but I’ve heard it dozens. (My husband is a Law & Order addict, so I’m seldom in the same room as the TV…)

  9. realpc920 said,

    I have seen a lot of ads with that kind of creepiness, but they aren’t necessarily good-looking. Some viagra ads, for example, where the guy is listing all the dangers while trying to smile knowingly at the same time. He really looks fake, in a creepy way. These are not simulations, just horribly made ads. But you would think ads would be scientifically designed to please audiences. I have to wonder what audiences like these creepy ads.

    The Restasis ad is very weird, as are many drug ads. We are supposed to believe the 25 year old doctor and patient both have dry eyes and need a drug. It’s probably something people get in their eighties.

    I don’t think there are any animations that anyone could mistake for a real person. Even animated cartoons have real people behind them, in some way, for the gestures and facial expressions.

    But your idea is, I think, that we depend on having genuine caring people in our environment at all times. Just knowing that, or thinking that, they are there, somewhere, out there. We are completely social even when alone.

    My image of utter horror is a face that always smiles, but there is no caring behind the smile. Yes, sort of like the people in these ads.

    And maybe this is also related to why I hate automated telephone systems. I think the people who design them must be sadists. I especially hate the ones that try to be friendly and conversational, and we’re supposed to fooled into thinking they understand us.

    Fortunately, they will never be able to design any decent natural language systems so we won’t be subjected to that horror.

    A lot of science fiction will always be fiction. The Restasis doctor is not a robot.

  10. S Casteel said,

    she’s real, still very unusual eyes in her other pic, was just carefully made up, likely nervous about the eye info so didn’t tend to blink as much as usual because of the subject matter, and was enhanced digitally after the fact.

  11. amba12 said,

    S Casteel, there is not necessarily a contradiction between her being a real person and also being a digital simulation. Read the Julia Roberts story at the “replica-based” link . The only argument against that is that it is apparently still quite expensive to do. So it is possible that she is only digitally enhanced, not digitally replicated. But either way, don’t you get the feeling that they are trying to lower our defenses, to accustom us, to train us to accept and trust simulations? After all, you don’t have to pay them residuals! If the negative and alarmed reaction to such commercials (and not only from the actor’s unions!) is any indication, though, we are still extremely vigilant and sensitized to that attempt. I wonder if computer simulations will ever get good enough — or we screen-numbed enough — to fool us.

  12. amba12 said,

    Ick, the ophthalmologist also does Botox and dermal fillers. Helping real people look synthetic. From Restasis to Restylane.

  13. S. Casteel said,

    Yes, regardless of what was used, she is apparently deep into the youthful, be better than nature created you human look industry. As a middle aged woman who is often mistaken for younger (thanks to not smoking/drinking and not living in a sunbed) and the mother of 2 wonderful daughters, I find it all quite repulsive.
    Yes, it is definately being pushed on us to accept “people” who don’t appear truly human.

    The masks don’t look natural, the movements will be stiff, so get used to “normal” people who have the same look.

  14. realpc920 said,

    “I wonder if computer simulations will ever get good enough”

    No, because even animations require live actors to get the gestures and expressions. Things we take for granted are unbelievably complicated if you try to program them. They won’t ever be able to make an animation that can replace a human actor. And they won’t be able to take someone’s image and have it say or do things the person never said or did.

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