As advances in robotics technology increase, robots are designed that look more and more like people. Robotics engineers often aim for a fully humanoid-looking robot that can mimic people in every way. However, that may not always be a good thing, due to the Uncanny Valley.
The Uncanny Valley is a concept that was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. The idea is that humans respond to a robot with only a few human-like characteristics such as two eyes or speech in a positive way.
Simply put, a boxy, awkward robot is cute. Robot designs that are more human-like in appearance cause normal humans respond to them in an increasingly positive way. A robot that looks like a child's toy is endearing. However, once a robot design passes a certain level of human-like appearance, normal people suddenly begin to respond very negatively to the robot. Said in another way, to design a robot that looks almost human is to design a monster.
This means that if roboticists attempt to design a robot to look like a human they need to design a perfect imitation human or it is a complete failure. There is no room for mistakes.
Now, at this time, many new android style robot designs are sitting squarely in the Uncanny Valley. For instance, the robot Actroid Repliee Q1 designed by Osaka University is considered to be an excellent example of this phenomenon.
The robot almost looks like a young, pleasant Japanese girl. It mimics blinking, speaking and breathing.
Repliee can also react quickly enough to push away a potential slap or poke. However, the robot fails to look human enough. It in fact maintains a strong and unmistakable air of creepiness.
All kinds of people, young and old, men and women, respond to the robot with distrust or even disgust. It seems as if the robot is trying too hard, and failing, to be human. People respond to it like a monster. It is something out of the Uncanny Valley.
Another example of this Uncanny Valley phenomenon is the Albert Hubo designed by Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). The robot is basically the same model as the Hubo also designed by KAIST, except the Albert Hubo has an animated human-like head that looks like Albert Einstein. It seems like Albert Einstein's head was taken from its grave and re-animated using artificial means, which could be the plot of a horror movie. The design is firmly within the Uncanny Valley.
The normal model Hubo with a stylized head that looks like a computer monitor, on the other hand, elicits no such response from people. And the small, block-shaped soccer robots from KAIST that participate in the RoboWorld Cup each year do not look strange or threatening at all. They look like the best kind of toys.
So while it is definitely a great technical challenge for roboticists to design and built a robot that looks, acts, and seems human, it might not be the best focus for the Korean robotics industry. Cute, toy-like robots seem to be the way to go.