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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Exploring the Uncanny Valley of Bots

Have long been a student and practitioner of engineering how people react to intelligent machines. And here we mean by a depth beyond just posing and answering questions, but how people actually engage, trust and build some relationship with machines.

One aspect of this,  that came out of robotics, is the idea of an 'uncanny valley', where people are averse to machines that seem too human-like.  Can also be applied to bots, as described below.  From the CACM:

The Edge of the Uncanny By Gregory Mone 
Communications of the ACM, Vol. 59 No. 9, Pages 17-19

" ... Mitsuku is quick-witted, occasionally confusing, and strangely engaging. She is also a chatbot, built from the A.L.I.C.E. (Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity) platform originally developed by Richard Wallace in 1995. She conducts hundreds of thousands of conversations daily, according to Lauren Kunze, principal of Pandorabots, the Oakland, CA-based company behind the technology. "She doesn't really do anything," Kunze says. "She's not designed to assist you. She can tell you the weather or perform an Internet search, but she's really just there to talk to you, and she's wildly popular with teens. People say, 'I love you' and 'you're my best friend.'"

The appeal is not accidental. The designers of chatbots like Mitsuku and the engineers of physical social robots have made significant advances in their understanding of how to build more engaging machines. Yet there are still many challenges, one of which is the unpredictability of humans. "We just don't understand how people are going to react to physical or software robots," says University of Southern California computer scientist Yolanda Gil, chair of SIGAI, ACM's Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence. "This is one kind of technology where people continue to surprise us."

While there are no absolute guidelines for building effective social robots or engaging chatbots, a few common themes have emerged.

Uncanny Expectations

One frequently cited theory in social robotics is the Uncanny Valley, first described by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. The Uncanny Valley contends there is a risk in building machines that are too human, that instead of attracting people, realistic androids can have a repulsive effect because of their "uncanny" resemblance to real humans. The reasons for the aversion are varied. Researchers have found evidence that highly capable androids bother people because they represent a threat to human uniqueness, or that on a subconscious level, they actually remind us of corpses. ... " 

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