Approaching Uncanny Valley: the rise of hyper-realistic robots

The robots that capture most of our imaginations are humanoids. These bots closely resemble humans and quite a significant number of them are already in production and being deployed in various industries.
Industries: General
Trends: Robotics
  • Humanoids – more than just a robot
  • The humanoid robot market
  • Uncanny Valley explained
  • Introducing terrifyingly realistic robots Ameca, Sophia, and Pedia_Roid

No other technological development has evoked so many conflicting responses as that of robotics. We certainly are in awe of robots, yet we dread them as well. We want these sophisticated machines to improve and simplify our lives, yet we aren’t fully sure whether we should put our trust in them. We are concerned that they will take over our jobs, or worse. Whether we are apprehensive about robots or not – their development is ongoing and the area of robotics is rapidly expanding. Robots are no longer just powerful, bulky machines positioned at conveyor belts and in factories – they come in all shapes and sizes and walk, roll, and even jump among us in an ever expanding variety of roles. Their tasks are no longer confined to limited and pre-programmed ones, but increasingly include complicated thought processes and autonomous decision making as well. The ones that capture most of our imaginations are humanoids; robots that very closely resemble human beings, sometimes even to the point of it becoming a little creepy. Quite a significant number of humanoids are currently in production and are being deployed as service robots at reception desks in hotels, at information kiosks in shopping malls, or as assistants at care centres. They are also widely used in entertainment and communication. According to various forecasts, robots will most likely work alongside humans, rather than replace them. In fact, historian Yval Noa Harari says: “The employment market of 2050 might easily be characterised by human-AI cooperation rather than competition”.

Humanoids – more than just a robot

So, what is a humanoid robot exactly? Well, first, it has a body like we have, with a torso, head, and limbs (or wheels), although it can also be designed to just have one part of its body resemble that of a human, such as the face. Humanoids are made to perform human-like tasks. They can carry objects, run, jump, and so on. As AI advances even further, expectations are that robots will display more advanced human-like features and capabilities than we can currently wrap our minds around. They will look, move, and behave more and more like humans and even interact socially with and work alongside people. For humanoid robots to do what they were designed to, they need to be fitted with perceptual technologies that use visual, auditory, tactile, depth, and force information to help them recognise, respond, and adapt to their surroundings and make decisions. Humanoids currently in use (and in development) still lack the fine motor skills that would enable them to operate smoothly enough and with the appropriate ‘human’ sensitivity. This is largely due to the slower development of actuation technology. Breakthroughs in this area are, however, certainly not far away. Developing technologies will – in the near future – enable the creation of high-performance humanoids that are able to autonomously carry out all kinds of dexterous tasks and collaborate with humans. 

The global humanoid robot market is estimated to grow from $1.5 billion in 2022 to $17.3 billion by 2027, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 63.5 per cent per cent between 2022 and 2027.


The humanoid robot market

Humanoids are playing an increasingly prominent role in our society, and their impact is set to grow at a steady pace. Configured either as bipedal or wheeled, these robots can learn quickly, and interact and collaborate with humans, which makes them very valuable in many industries. The growth of the humanoid robot market has been driven largely by the introduction of advanced features and this growth is further boosted by the increased adoption of humanoids for surveillance, security, military, manufacturing, educational, entertainment, and personal assistance or service purposes. Some companies even specialise in creating robots for space exploration, high-risk research, and sex.   

The report The Investment Case For Humanoid Robots by leading global investment banking, securities, and investment management firm Goldman Sachs Group reveals: “Should the hurdles of product design, use case, technology, affordability and wide public acceptance be completely overcome, we envision a market of up to $154 billion by 2035 in a blue-sky scenario. A market that size could fill from 48 per cent to 126 per cent of the labour gap, and as much as 53 per cent of the elderly caregiver gap”. The report further reveals that “humanoid robots could be a $154 billion-a-year business within the next 15 years”.

“I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the Valley of Eeriness.”

Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori

Uncanny Valley explained

Humanoids that are extremely lifelike and realistic can make us feel creeped out, particularly when we discover that they are not human, like we initially thought. This ‘phenomenon’ that gives us a sense of strangeness, unease, or even revulsion is called the ‘Uncanny Valley’ – a term first coined in a 1970 article by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. He identified the phenomenon as ‘bukimi no tani genshō’, which literally means ‘Valley of Eeriness.’ The Japanese term was later translated into ‘Uncanny Valley’ by Jasia Reichardt, author of the book Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction. Mori noted in his work that robots appeared more appealing to people if they looked more human. But this was only true to a certain extent. In fact, as soon as robots appeared too human, people started feeling uncomfortable and sometimes even afraid. This obviously has implications for the robotics industry as the extreme likeness to humans could or would ultimately alienate the humans who are working with these robots. 

In his seminal paper Mori explains: “I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the Valley of Eeriness”. Although Mori proposed the uncanny valley theory in 1970, further verifiable investigations into the theory only commenced in the mid 2000s, with some research supporting the theory’s existence without being able to explain exactly why and how it happens. With more and more people relying on robotics and AI, designing machines that avoid creating a sense of eeriness or distrust is becoming increasingly important – especially when it comes to assistive robots. These are often deployed in hospitals, nursing homes, and educational institutions, where they have close interaction with people who, to a certain degree, depend on them.

Introducing terrifyingly realistic robots Ameca, Sophia, and Pedia_ Roid

The next three humanoids we’re about to introduce – the most realistic in the world – could almost cause people to fall into the uncanny valley. They are incredibly lifelike – complex social skills and ‘human emotions’ and all – and, at first sight, some are virtually indistinguishable from humans. They still have a way to go, however, before they’ll really be able to fool us.   

Ameca, the world’s most advanced, grey-skinned humanoid

Robotics company Engineered Arts creates robots for educational and entertainment purposes, and its humanoid Ameca has the world in awe. Ameca is used at malls, museums and airports to welcome visitors; deployed by marketing companies for publicity stunts; and used by scientists and academics for research purposes. Ameca has an exposed metal torso and an incredibly realistic grey-skinned face that can express a range of emotions when interacting with people. One of many videos available on the internet shows Ameca frowning as an Engineered Arts employee reaches out to touch its nose. Then, Ameca reaches toward the person to stop his arm from coming too close.

After its operating system is booted up, Ameca scrunches its cheeks, raises its eyebrows, and then blinks and grimaces. The microphones in its ears enable the humanoid to localise and turn towards nearby sounds, and cameras in its eyes use machine vision technology to track hand movements and facial expressions. Ameca turns to look at a person, and in turn, the person looks back – mimicking a kind of human-like ‘interaction’. Ameca can be controlled remotely, with hidden handlers that help it answer questions, or it can run on autopilot and react to people with pre-programmed, standard responses. In the future, Engineered Arts plans to equip its humanoids with sophisticated chatbot software to enable them to respond intelligently to questions without human assistance. Will Jackson, CEO of Engineered Arts, says: “We naturally respond to them like humans. The form just doesn’t make sense for any other task. The only good reason to build a humanoid is to interact and be friendly with people. Robots should be built to carry out specific tasks as efficiently as possible, which is why the best robot dishwasher is a square box – it’s not a humanoid wandering around your house, messing with your plates”.

“By crafting a whole human organism, and then in waves of development pushing towards human-level capabilities across the spectrum – that’s the big goal, that is the grand challenge. If we accomplish that, if we create that level of living intelligent machine, then history is changed.”

Dr David Hanson – Hanson Robotics

Robot citizen Sophia gives us a glimpse into the future

Sophia was created by Hong Kong-based Hanson robotics – a firm that has been creating robots for more than 26 years – as a platform for AI research, as well as a kind of science fiction character that gives us a glimpse into the future of advanced robotics. A unique blend of artistry, engineering, and science, the humanoid Sophia has garnered widespread attention and captures the imagination of people around the world. Sophia is a sophisticated robot with many abilities. She can be hired for keynote addresses, she can hold conversations, make jokes, sing, and even create art. In fact, in March 2021, one of her digital artworks – which she created in collaboration with Italian artist Andrea Bonaceto – was sold as an NFT (non-fungible token) for almost $690,000. Sophia mimics facial expressions and can ‘really connect’ with and effectively reply to all kinds of people. This is made possible by neural networks and artificial intelligence, which enable her to identify people and interpret their facial expressions and behaviours. 

In 2017 she was even awarded Saudi Arabian citizenship and became the world’s first robot citizen. Sophia has made appearances on Good Morning Britain and the Tonight Show and speaks at events across the globe. Dr David Hanson, founder, CEO and chief designer of Hanson Robotics, says: “By crafting a whole organism, a whole human organism, and then in waves of development pushing towards human-level capabilities across the spectrum – human general intelligence, learns in one area and can apply it another; it’s creative and imaginative – that’s the big goal, that is the grand challenge. If we accomplish that, if we create that level of living intelligent machine, then history is changed”.

Eerily-realistic robotic child throws tantrums to help train dentists

The Japanese robotics startup Tmsuk, in collaboration with a local dental school, created a hyper-realistic humanoid to help train paediatric dentists and doctors manage young children with anxiety that come into the treatment room. The robot is called Pedia_Roid and looks exactly like a 5-6 year old child, measuring just over one metre in height and weighing approximately 22kg. The robot simulates the unexpected movements that children often make in the dentist chair. It moves its arms, legs, face, mouth, tongue and eyes in a particular way so as to convey human emotions like fear, resistance, and anxiety. Yui Kawakubo, CEO of the company, explains: “Pedia_Roid not only develops symptoms but also throws a tantrum, forcing students to hold it down while trying to treat the child. It’s an ultimate emergency simulator”. 

Using a mobile device programmed with a variety of medical conditions, the user can send signals to the robot’s joints so that it can display physical reactions and facial expressions. The robot can open its mouth and change the position of its head when asked to do so. It can even make unexpected movements – such as when coughing or sneezing – and simulate medical emergencies like heart failure and convulsions. This enables trainees to gain experience dealing with similar critical situations. The robot can also change its facial colour, such as turn pale or blush. It has a pulse, and can even have fake blood drawn ‘intravenously’ from its hand. Yusuke Ishii, director of Tmsuk’s engineering division, says: “The robot was developed due to the lack of clinical dental training to treat children. It is difficult to get experience in paediatric dentistry because there are no opportunities to practise”. The goal is to develop the hyper-realistic robot further in order to enable people from other healthcare sectors to use it to train for various emergency situations.

In closing

Humanoid robots are heralds of the future. Advances in sensor technology as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning will enable them to continue to transition from rote machines to sophisticated collaborators with increasingly human-like features and cognitive capabilities. In the future, robots will handle more and more burdensome manual work, enabling humans to dedicate their time and energy to more meaningful tasks. Some see these advanced machines as a confirmation of humanity’s incredible achievements, while others assert they blur the boundaries between biological and artificial life, creating all kinds of dilemmas and raising serious ethical concerns. As their technology improves and they become more and more human-like, the question of how we will ultimately interact with and relate to humanoids will become more pressing. Only time will tell how all of this will eventually work out.

Industries: General
Trends: Robotics
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