Falling Into the Uncanny Valley

TIFFANY FONG | FEATURES



The Uncanny Valley effect has driven discussion regarding human evolution, sparking theories and folklore as we humans wonder: why do we fear objects that closely resemble us but are not quite us?


Originally proposed by Mori Masahiro in 1970 as an aesthetic guide for robot design and development, drawing upon Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud’s Theory of the Uncanny; the Uncanny Valley hypothesises that as objects become more humanlike, they become more appealing to us – we begin to stop seeing them strictly as objects as we begin to empathise with them – but only up to a certain point. This major plunge in affinity is known as the Uncanny Valley effect where we develop a sense of unease towards realistic looking robots before we climb back out of the valley with humans.

Besides application to robotics, the Uncanny Valley has also been used by game developers and animators. Live action versions of animated films like The Lion King and the Cats musical brought discourse about the Uncanny Valley effect into mainstream popular discourse. Most notably, the live-action adaptation of Sonic the Hedgehog's trailer led to adverse reactions from audiences regarding his character design with many describing him as “unsettling” with teeth that were “terrifyingly human.” When my friend first sent me a picture of it I called it “cursed” – Sonic's human-like eyes with their dual corneas and human-like teeth accompanied by his thin human-like legs (which remind me of boys who wear shorts but have stick legs like why bro why) and articulated hands (not even paws, hands) all compounded by the fact that his whole body follows human ratios with the exception of his head and hair (like seriously, imagine being on the animation team and seeing this everyday). This backlash led to an overhaul of Sonic's character design and pushed back the release date by over a year, a decision unheard of in the film industry due to the costs involved.

Notably, Sonic's redesign exaggerated his features and made his body less proportionate – his eyes bigger, the teeth less noticeable and his fur less textured, retaining a cartoon element to his look rather than the hyper-realistic effect which Paramount initially aimed for.

Yet, the Uncanny Valley has been part of pop culture discourse for years, gaining prominence in Pixar's animated short Tin Toy where the baby drew adverse reactions from audiences leading to public discussion about the Uncanny Valley effect in 1988. This phenomenon arose again in the 2004 film The Polar Express and the 2006 film Monster House. It is noted that the Uncanny Valley is a bit of a misnomer, as we have never climbed out of it, once we have fallen off the cliff we have yet to find a way out without retracting our steps. As technology and CGI continue to develop in leaps and bounds, maybe one day we will climb out of the Uncanny Valley yet the prospect of an animation or robotic being so human-like that it is no longer indistinguishable from actual humans is a much more scary prospect for me.


The Uncanny Valley has been suggested to be an evolutionary tactic for survival, however the great mystery is that we have yet to observe another animal experience this phenomenon. So we are left with the question of what was so dangerous to us that we developed a fear of things that closely resemble humans, but are not quite us?

It has been suggested that some of the most dangerous creatures in folklore and fables are those that resemble humans. Think of vampires, witches, djinn, nine-tailed foxes and above all think of the fae. The fae who entice you with half-truths, who are able to gain incredible power over you with just your name, and replace your beloved child with a changeling.

Another suggestion is that it is rabies which caused us to develop this evolutionary survival mechanism of the Uncanny Valley. Rabies and other diseases that attack our central nervous system have been around forever. As the disease attacks the body, common symptoms include nausea, confusion, violent movements, and paranoia. To see something human-like move in an inhuman manner causes a disconnect and in turn, sparks fear within us.

But what if, what we feared was never something that resembled human beings? But humans themselves? New research has suggested that homo sapiens coexisted with several other human species like Neanderthals, homo erectus, homo rhodesiensis, homo naledi, homo luzonensis and homo floresiensis. Besides us, no other hominid exists today and their disappearance just 10,000 years ago resembles a mass extinction, yet there was no environmental catastrophe during that time to drive that change.

A theory suggested is that our species, homo sapiens, outcompeted with the others – either starving them of resources or killing them off. So the question is, what if the Uncanny Valley Effect is caused by a fear of ourselves?


While we may have forgotten our history, evolution will not allow us to forget the past.