Will Industrial Robots Ever Enter the Uncanney Valley?

Have you ever seen a robot that almost looked human? Maybe it was so lifelike that from a distance you would be convinced that it was an actual person. After some time, however, you’d find it unsettling how the robot doesn’t quite move right, or sometimes not at all. The permanent half-smile and dull, lifeless eyes leave you feeling a little uncomfortable.

That feeling is known as the “uncanny valley” — that feeling that something seems a little too human not to be human… but too inhuman to be human.

There’s just something eerie about robots that look like humans. Fortunately, industrial robots look nothing like people, and are far away from the uncanny valley. But the number of humanoid robots is increasing, and they’re becoming more and more convincing. Will industrial robots ever reach the uncanny valley?

What is the uncanny valley?

Robotics professor Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” in 1970. Basically, what this means is that people like robots that look like people up to a certain point… and then they hate robots that look like people… and then they will like them again.

That range at which robots may look too close to human, but not close enough is called the uncanny valley.

According to Masahiro Mori, people will have positive and empathetic feelings towards robots that resemble humans. Think cartoon characters. However, if they start to look too human, but not human enough, people start to feel uncomfortable and view these robots in a negative way. Once robots are indistinguishable from humans, the positive empathetic feelings return.

We don’t need humanoid industrial robots

There’s not really a practical need for humanoid robots. It’s kind of strange that we are so obsessed with making robots that look like people. Maybe we do it because it’s novel and cool, or maybe we do it to make science fiction a reality. Some roboticists may make humanoid robots because they find them fascinating, for the challenge, or maybe just simply for the sake of doing it.

Making industrial robots that look like people would be counterproductive, however. One of the reasons we use industrial robots in manufacturing is because they are more capable than people.

Consider the physical limitations of humans. We have a limited range of motion, our bodies prevent us from covering long distances quickly, and we can’t reach things much higher than eight or nine feet off the floor. We use industrial robots because they’re better at performing certain tasks than people. Because of this, there’s no real risk of traditional industrial robots entering the uncanny valley.

Co-bots could be creepy

Co-bots, on the other hand, could resemble people. Collaborative robots aren’t expected to perform the same tasks as industrial robots. They bridge the gap between human and machine, and facilitate human jobs, or enhance worker capabilities. It seems plausible that collaborative robots could be designed to look like humans.

At the moment, Baxter looks nothing like a human, but he is equipped with a pair of expressive eyes. Slap a fake epidermis, some hair, and some teeth on him, and those shifting eyes would leave you feeling uneasy in no time.

It seems unlikely that industrial robots will ever breach the uncanny valley, and let’s hope that they never do.