by Sam Harris
Picture this: You see somebody you like. You become the best of friends. Through thick and thin you will stand together, two human beings put together on this earth, understanding each other completely. A friend for life. Then one day comes the moment where your friend's skin falls off, revealing a robot underneath. You throw up in disgust!
Well, that's probably an extreme example, however the underlying principle of the human's response to a realistic robot is deemed true by both the robotic and film industry. It even has a name: "Uncanny valley".
Uncanny valley refers to a dip in an inclining graph that indicates how humans will like a robot that is made more and more humanlike, up until a certain point is reached where a robot that looks too humanlike but is still a little off in appearance and movement, causes a response of revulsion.
This has repercussions for the film industry: The movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is often cited as the first computer-generated movie to attempt to show realistic-looking humans. However, due to the enormous complexity of the human body, human motion, and human biomechanics, realistic simulation of humans remains largely an open problem.
The 2004 CGI animated film The Polar Express, that attempted very real-looking 3D animated characters, was criticized by reviewers who felt that the appearances of the characters were "creepy" or "eerie". Audiences also reacted negatively to the baby in Pixar's 1988 short film Tin Toy.
Eventually, the goal is to create software where the animator can generate a movie sequence showing a photorealistic human character, undergoing physically-plausible motion, together with clothes, photorealistic hair, and a complicated natural background. This could be done in a way that the viewer is no longer able to tell if a particular movie is computer-generated, or using real actors.
What are the reasons for a reaction of revulsion from human observers of almost realistic humanoids? Is this another form of racism?
Among the reasons might be that if an entity looks sufficiently nonhuman, its human characteristics will be noticeable, generating empathy. However, if the entity looks almost human, it will elicit our model of a human other and its detailed normative expectations. The nonhuman characteristics will be noticeable, giving the human viewer a sense of strangeness.
In other words, a robot stuck inside the uncanny valley is no longer being judged by the standards of a robot doing a passable job at pretending to be human, but is instead being judged by the standards of a human doing a terrible job at acting like a normal person.
A similar effects as the uncanny valley arises when humans start modifying their bodies with non human parts in order to enhance their abilities beyond what is considered human. So long as these enhancements remain within a perceived norm of human behavior, a negative reaction is unlikely, but once individuals supplant normal human variety, revulsion can be expected.
In the end I guess we consider being human "normal".