Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The New 'Terminator' is Creepy: Psychologist Says Why

"Why 'Terminator' Is So Creepy"
LiveScience (May 20, 2009 )

"Hollywood and robotics researchers have long struggled with the 'uncanny valley,' where a movie character or robot falls into the unsettling gap between human and not-quite-human. One psychologist likes to demonstrate this by holding up a plastic baby doll and asking audiences if they think it's alive. They say no.

"Then she takes out a saw and starts cutting the doll's head off, but quickly stops upon seeing the uncomfortable audience reactions.

" 'I think that part of their brain is thinking the doll is alive, and you can't shut that off,' said Thalia Wheatley, a psychologist at Dartmouth College...."

This article leans heavily on the "Terminator Salvation" movie and its marketing. It also gives a pretty good overview of what's known about the "uncanny valley," a catchy term used to describe a situation where something/someone looks and acts human, but not quite.

The idea's been around since the 1970s, and is more than geeky speculation. A repeatable lab experiment has people looking at a human face that morphs into a doll's face. We notice that it's 'not human' when it's 70% human, 30% doll. We think it's 'creepiest,' though, when it's more definitely a doll's face.

The idea that LiveScience presents is that this is because parts of the human brain are hard-wired. Wheatley says a deeper part of the brain interprets anything with two eyes, a nose and a mouth as a 'face' - and that another part, not so deep, is more discerning. The latter part is 'social,' interpreting emotions - and any of the motions that happen around the face of a living creature.

"...'Even though your sophisticated analysis says it's not alive, you still have a primitive part of the brain not getting it,' Wheatley said...." And, presumably, that set of conflicting interpretations is that 'creepy' feeling we get in this new "Terminator" movie.

Aside from being interesting for "Terminator" fans and some psychologists, this sort of research could be important for robot developers.

From a marketing point of view, you probably don't want your household robot to be 'creepy.'

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