That, at least, was the thesis of the Japanese robotics professor who coined the phrase “uncanny valley” in a 1970 essay of the same name. Masahiro Mori, who turns 92 this year, is something of an anomaly: a visionary who has survived long enough to see his predictions come true (it’s telling that no authorized English translation of the essay existed before 2012). Studying the ways in which people interact with toys, puppets, and prosthetics, Mori extrapolated a generation of robots that would inspire revulsion in their users because they looked too human. When the world finally caught up, he found himself highly in-demand—not just among roboticists, but computer scientists, philosophers, designers, and artists.
Mori was highly original in some ways, derivative in others. At the core of his most famous essay is a whimsical and rather un-scientific graph in which he plots the “human likeness” of various things—a toy robot, a healthy person, a doll, an ill person, even a zombie—against their hypothetical shinwakan, i.e. “affinity.” He drew inspiration from his country’s rich theater tradition, arguing that its famous bunraku puppets were both highly lifelike and highly likeable, but perhaps only because audiences viewed them from the comfort of their seats.
By far the most important thing Mori takes for granted in his essay is the existence of a category called the “uncanny.” Like “robot” (or, for that matter, “uncanny valley”), the word “uncanny” is a surprisingly recent invention. It originated in the 16th century, but didn’t acquire its full modern definition until 1919, when Sigmund Freud penned an essay on the subject, citing, by way of example, the creepiness of dolls, puppets, and waxworks. What distinguished these objects was, for Freud, their combination of strangeness and familiarity—the more familiar the observer found them, the stranger they became. More than half a century later, Mori refined Freud’s theories by applying them to the world of robotics.