Uncanny Valley


To understand the concept of the "uncanny valley", as well as if and how technology is addressing and incorporating this concept into artificial intelligence. As well, to obtain a link to and summary of Freud's 1919 paper titled "The Uncanny".

Early Findings

The Uncanny

  • "The Uncanny" is a book which was written by Sigmund Freud and published by Prabhat Prakashan in 1919.
  • Though the book was initially published in German, it is available in an English translation (by David McLintock) both in Kindle and paperback format on Amazon.
  • The book is a compilation of "some of [Freud's] most influential explorations of the mind", in which he "investigates the vivid but seemingly trivial childhood memories that often 'screen' deeply uncomfortable desires; the links between literature and daydreaming; and our intensely mixed feelings about things we experience as 'uncanny'".
  • An English-translated copy of the titular essay, "The Uncanny", is available in full via MIT, and can be found here.
  • A summary of the essay, published by the University of Iowa, notes that it "is an important work of psychoanalytic criticism that moved away from analysis of authors to focus on themes present in literature that make the reader uneasy".
  • "He uses the German word unheimlich and its opposite, heimlich, to illustrate this point. Within the many definitions for unheimlich, the word reaches a point in which it means its exact opposite, without the word changing itself. Unheimlich means both 'familiar' and 'unfamiliar,' and translates into English as 'uncanny.'"
  • In the essay, Freud "delves into the etymology of the German term for familiar (unheimlich), showing how it can mean both familiar or comfortable, but can also be used to mean its supposed opposite—the unheimlich or uncanny, that which is unfamiliar or mysterious".
  • To summarize, Freud writes that something is "uncanny" when it blurs the line between what is imagined and what is real. Throughout his essay, Freud uses fairy tales and children's toys as examples to illustrate his point, noting that - as written in the University of Iowa's summary - "this is why the events in fairy tales do not make us uneasy; we assume it is an imagined world, completely separate from our own".

The Uncanny Valley

  • Though Freud's essay was published in 1919, the concept of the "uncanny valley" wasn't introduced until the 1970s by a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Masahiro Mori.
  • "Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe his observation that as robots appear more human-like, they become more appealing—but only up to a certain point. Upon reaching the uncanny valley, our affinity descends into a feeling of strangeness, a sense of unease, and a tendency to be scared or freaked out. So the uncanny valley can be defined as people’s negative reaction to certain lifelike robots."
  • Mori wrote an essay on the subject, titled "The Uncanny Valley" and published originally in Japanese. It was published in the magazine Energy in 1970.
  • The essay was later translated into English in 2012, when it was published both online and in IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine.
  • Though the above translation was likely not the first, it was the first one to be reviewed and approved by Mori.
  • The essay focuses "on how [Mori] envisioned people's reactions to robots that looked and acted almost like a human. In particular, he hypothesized that a person's response to a human-like robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached, but failed to attain, a lifelike appearance. This descent into eeriness is known as the uncanny valley".

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