Animals Can Experience the Uncanny Valley
By MATT PETRONZIO
Oct 24 2014
In 2009, researchers at Princeton University showed macaque monkeys three images of their species: a real photograph, an unrealistic computer rendering and a detailed digital caricature.
The monkeys, which normally coo and smack their lips when they interact in real life, looked inquisitively at the photographs and renderings for extended periods of time. But when they saw the last type of image — lifelike but not quite realistic enough — they quickly averted their eyes, frightened.
The study was the first to find that an animal other than a human could experience the phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley.” Japanese robotics engineer Masahiro Mori coined the phrase more than 30 years ago, describing the revulsion we feel when something looks nearly human, but not enough to be convincing.
The fact that monkeys experience the phenomenon may not be totally surprising, considering they’re primates like us and share many anatomical similarities. But what about other animals, like birds and dogs?
Some experts think yes — in a way. Animals have instincts, largely based in survival, to know when something isn’t quite right. But just how is difficult to demonstrate, and likely differs from the way humans experience it.
“People forget the obvious — that your average dog doesn’t really know what he looks like,” says Marc Bekoff, former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and cofounder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
He says the basis of whether animals can experience the uncanny valley has roots in classical studies of animal behavior, but it’s not so much about them knowing what they look like themselves — it’s knowing what another member of their species looks like.
“They have some kind of template in their brains, and there’s an expected match or a ‘non-expected’ match, if you will. And when it deviates by a certain amount, that would be probably aversive,” Bekoff tells Mashable.
Ethologists apply the term “neophobic” to certain wild animals — they’re afraid of strange things, or the unknown. Bekoff gives a simple example of his dogs encountering his bike in a different place than usual: They’ve lived at the same house for years, seen that very bike countless times before, but the fact that it’s in an odd place causes them to stop in fear. Sometimes novelty itself is a deterrent.
Essentially, that’s what the uncanny valley is. We notice flaws, no matter how subtle, in lifelike androids or CGI animations, and they trigger a negative response. There’s one theory that the phenomenon elicits an innate fear of death, which hearkens back to an animal’s survival instinct; another studyattributes it to a mismatch between appearance and motion.