Why human-like robots make us feel uncomfortable

Hiroshi Ishiguro's Geminoid F. Does she make you feel uncomfortable?. Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory, ATR

TORONTO – It scares Elon Musk. And Bill Gates. And Stephen Hawking.

Artificial intelligence — the idea of a robot developing self-consciousness — is something that all three of these men feel are a serious threat to the existence of humanity.

READ MORE: Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could mean human extinction

Last December, renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking told the BBC, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

WATCH: Has Nao robot shown signs of self-awareness?
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In particular, they fear something referred to as the “singularity”: the moment when artificial intelligence is capable of redesigning itself, improving itself to the point of an intelligence that far exceeds that of humans. Humans would lose control, and could face extinction.

But aside from worldwide domination, there is something else about robots and A.I. that us more common folk fear: the creepy-looking robots themselves.

That’s due to something referred to as the “uncanny valley.”

The Uncanny Valley. Smurrayinchester/Wikimedia Creative Commons (based on image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman)

This concept was put forth by a professor of engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Masahiro Mori, in 1970. It’s the idea that as robots become more human-like, we go from admiration to revulsion.

Just think: if you see a mechanical robot, built with plastic parts, you might think it’s cute. But when you see one that appears more human, it likely makes you feel uncomfortable. Like Jules, over here.

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WATCH: Meet Jules

(Also not helping is him saying one day that he’ll “find you.” Thanks for the nightmares, Jules.)

The effect of the uncanny valley can also be found in video games. The first incidence of uncanny valley in this regard was seen in 2001 with the release of the animated film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It’s believed that it’s ultra-realistic animation made moviegoers uncomfortable, contributing to its failure at the box office.

But there may be more to our uneasiness than something just looking human-like. A couple of studies, such as this one from Karl. F. MacDorman from Indiana University, found that there may be other factors that contribute to our uncomfortableness. However, the study did find that the uncanny valley present in its research.

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Now, human-like also includes movement, such as seen here:

WATCH: Creepy robot baby

Boston Dynamics also has a way of making you feel a bit uncomfortable, but not with human-like robots.

The robotics company has created a series of robots, including Spot, the cheetah and Big Dog (the idea is that these robots would be extremely useful for the military).

WATCH: Boston Dynamics robots

Though these robots are made out of metal, their movements — very precise — are very similar to animal-like movements (probably not helping is the sound of them, too). Did they creep you out? It’s likely that they did.  Basically, anything that we know is unreal, but seems real, makes us feel a bit uneasy.

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Now, if you’re worried about the robot apocalypse, just think: Google already has more than 20 driver-less cars on the road, bought Boston Dynamics — a company that specializes in advanced robots — in 2013, and is actively pursuing artificial intelligence research.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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