Cute to Creepy Robots: Touring the Edge of the Uncanny Valley

May 4, 2010, By Dorina Graham

Robots, humanoids, androids, the list goes on and on. In fact, the robot population has surged to over 8.6 million! Anthropomorphism, the giving of human characteristics to non human creatures, has long been seen in cartoons, animations, and even robots. But somewhere along the way, robots got too human-like in appearance, movements, and emotions until humans felt revulsion. This feeling of disgust aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. Here we take a tour of modern robots from cute to creepy as we walk along the edge of the uncanny valley.

Aww, now these robots are too cute! The iRobi home robot, on the left, can monitor the home, provide weather information and news, respond to voice commands, and entertain the kids with songs. The R3, on the right, was designed for helping the elderly or disabled and costs a little more than $41,000. R3 is life-sized, has 11 touch sensors throughout its body, along with a pair of USB cameras for eyes, two microphones and a speaker, an optional laser range finder, and a top speed of 1.55 mph.

At IREX (International Robot Exhibition), Taizo, a clown-like assistant trainer robot encouraged people to do stretching exercises. At the top right, the Manoi PF01 and AT01 athlete humanoids relaxed on a table at the Kyosho booth. The little green robot is called Robovie. It uses gaze cues to manage a conversation involving more than one person.

These humanoid robots competed in a 2009 soccer match. The RoboCup competition was help in Graz, Austria.

There are robots that provide music, from playing instruments to singing. These robots put on a musical show at Toyota Motor Corporation’s showroom in Tokyo.

Not satisfied with taking over the musical front, there are even robot actors on the stage in plays. Humanoid robot Momoko takes parts in a drama for the world’s first robot and human experimental theater at Japan’s Osaka University in Osaka.

Honda’s ASIMO has been around for years. It’s human enough to take a big fall on the way up the stairs during a demonstration. Honda advanced with a new brain-machine interface, using a subject’s thoughts alone to control the ASIMO robot. ASIMO on the right is a prototype. After shedding a hundred pounds, weighing in at 176 pounds, this ASIMO has better mobility.

Robotics have been in production factories for years. Watch out recession weary workers for your jobs. The Motoman industrial robot is able to perform tasks ranging from menial factory work to complex demonstrations. The femme-themed AILA robot has an RFID reader in its left palm. Based on that input, as well as data collected from its 3D camera and two laser scanners, AILA can intelligently deal with and transport all sorts of items.

The humanoid robot iCub is modeled after a two year old. With the dexterity of a child the same age, iCub has learned to talk. Not baby talk either. It’s always unwise to make a child robot as the creepiness factor starts to skyrocket.

This is NASA and GM’s humanoid Robonaut2. NASA handed it a one-way ticket to the International Space Station aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Robonaut2 is scheduled for departure in September.

Robot bartenders, cooks, receptionists . . . all are part of the robot population explosion. This humanoid robotic system “Rollin’ Justin” prepared tea at the world’s biggest high-tech fair CeBIT in Hanover, Germany. Robots work in nearly every capacity where human work, including as nurses and surgeons.

In case you’ve really wanted your own robot, humanoid robot Remo is a hobby bot released for $4,400 in Japan. It has a faceplate, pressure sensors in its feet for balance, two sensors “eyes” with two color CCD cameras for image processing, and Bluetooth connectivity for communication with your PC. On the right is Toyota’s humanoid running robot. It has excellent balance and can run 4.34 mph.

Seemingly harmless and cartoon-like, this robot “Eddie” has diplomats like German Foreign Minister and vice-chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier posing next to it at the Technical University in Munich, Germany.

Humanoid robot KOBIAN displays a surprised expression during a demonstration at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. KOBIAN expresses seven programmed emotions by using its entire body including facial expressions.

Farmer Wu Yulu from Beijing has been creating robots from recycled parts since 1986. Inventor Wu has his walking robot pull his rickshaw to and from the village.

Mistakes Begin . . . Walking along the edge of the uncanny valley:

From here on out, we walk right along the creepy edge of the uncanny valley. Many people have a fear of clowns. Designing a humanoid robot with a clown face is simply a bad idea. Besides his clown face, Robotinho is a football playing robot. Making a medical assisting robot to look like a cross between a 400 pound teddy bear and Pedobear? Stupid. Riba, short for Robot for Interactive Body Assistance, can lift elderly patients weighing up to 134 pounds in its foam-padded paws. Developers at Japan’s state-run Riken research center are calling it the world’s first robot to lift people from wheelchairs and beds.

Terrorizing children at a young age is Yotaro Baby Simulator. It was created to help children who have just learned that they will have a new brother or sister. The face of the baby simulator robot responds to touch and then displays different emotions. This includes cooing, crying “real” robot tears, and generally terrifying and permanently scarring young children for life.

Chaining a humanoid robot in place, is that really a wise move? ARSL (Advanced Robotic Systems Laboratories) has a new Proto-2 robot. Proto-2 has an expresive face, moving eyebrows, and a natural walking gait to aid in the study of human-robot interaction. On the right, meet Kojiro which was created to make a robot that’s more people friendly and moves in an organic fashion. Another humanoid robot, its detailed musculoskeletal system was built to mimic the human body. Of course, if they develop artificial intelligence, it is against the three laws to harm a human, right?

Korean researchers demonstrated their RAMeX humanoid with tele-operated arms and hands. The shiny humanoid robot on the right is on staff at Carnegie Science Center. The robot greets visitors at the door of Roboworld.

Robots seem to appear more and more “alive” with each new creation. Mahru mocks whatever movements its operator makes and has even learned to dance. TOPIO is a ping pong playing humanoid robot.

Near Tokyo, a “cybernetic human” meets the press. HRP-4C was designed to look like an average Japanese woman. CHARLI is a 5-foot tall “robot teenager.” Not only is it coordinated enough to walk well, but CHARLI will be able to “run, jump, kick, open doors, pick up objects, and do just about anything a real person can do.” It will soon be able to speak and is currently honing soccer skills for the next RoboCup.

A snakelike robotic arm may one day medically attend to soldiers as they are carried off the battlefield. “Giant Torayan” was a massive fire breathing baby robot sculpture. It might have terrorized local residents, but it didn’t go all Godzilla on them . . . yet.

“Child Robot with Biomimetic Body,” nicknamed CB2 (CB square), was created to teach lessons about child development. If CB2 weren’t so completely creepy, it might be cute. The 73-pound, roughly 4-foot-tall robot, shows emotions, and is supposed to be able to talk well soon.

Don’t date robots! You knew it would happen someday, but here teetering on the edge on the uncanny valley is a new type of robot-human interaction. The robot wife has advanced artificial intelligence and speaks 13,000 sentences in either English or Japanese. Does it make you feel better to realize that’s his wife sitting on his lap? Oh yes, it’s going there, because on the right is humanoid robot Miim. It strolled down the catwalk to model a wedding dress before telling the audience she was “very happy to be wearing the wedding dress.” Daddy developer Yokoi said he felt like “the father of the bride” and said he hoped his creation could work in fashion and entertainment. You see where this is going? It’s not like models and actresses are not in hot demand as a date. Not a good sign because someone will break the rule and date a robot. (Oh wait . . . someone’s already married one.)

Saya is a teacher in Japan. She’s also a robot that has 18 motors hidden behind her latex face to help her express emotions such as approval or anger. Saya speaks different languages and instills fear in the hearts of elementary students. The world waits with baited breath to see how this ends. It could be a good thing in human-robot relations since Saya will not show favoritism and prejudice, but how could the kids stand it? Perhaps those young student live for the day when they are dismissed early from school since teacher has BSOD (blue screen of death).

Hiroshi Ishiguro is the father of geminoids. His newest android is a female, Geminoid F. Hiroshi Ishiguro has his mirror image android, Geminoid HI-1.  Here’s Geminoid F meeting Geminoid HI-1.

Reborn dolls are so real, that sometimes they are mistaken by real babies. Their skin looks like human skin and there are ideas being tossed around to robotize them, starting with  heartbeat and flailing arms and legs.

image sources:(Pink Tentacle,Big Picture,Engadget,ieee spectrum,,Technology Review,gizmodo,cnet,zdnet,robot world news,Laughing Squid)
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