05 September 2006

The Uncanny Valley

The only advertiser to whom I've ever written a letter (actually email) of complaint was Duracell, about their "Putterman family" ads. Most people found the characters creepy and I was no exception. I wrote Duracell a nice letter to that effect. They sent me back a form letter, telling me that creeping me out had not been their intent. Although I don't think that I realized this at the time, what Duracell had done was fall into the uncanny valley.

The "uncanny valley" is a theory in robotics. It states, more or less, that people will respond to a robot who looks exactly like a human almost as if it were human, and that people will respond to robots who don't look like humans more like it was a human the closer it comes to looking human. This is not, however, a straight-line function because there is a point where a robot will look almost but not quite human where it will look creepy and fall into the uncanny valley. I'm not sure I buy the whole theory. R2D2 and C3PO seem like counter-examples. But there certainly is an uncanny valley and the Puttermans lived there.

I've been thinking of the uncanny valley and the Puttermans recently as a surf from blog to blog. I'm starting to see more advertisements aimed directly at me. For example, there is a match-making service advertising on online offering me girls in Northampton. Now, I'm not in the market for girls and, if I were, I wouldn't shop in Northampton. Moreover, I doubt that any one of the three girls pictured in the ad lives in Northampton (would that they did) so all the ad really accomplishes is to make me doubt the honesty of the provider of a service I don't need. But the ad also falls into the uncanny valley.

A few years ago, when caller ID was new, some call centers (including, I think, American Express) started using it to identify callers. Caller ID was integrated with the call center's computer system, so as they answered the phone the caller's file would come up on the screen. They started answering the phone "Hello Mr. Cohen, how can I help you." People freaked out and so the call centers went back to asking for your name, although your file was still right there in front of them. [The best use of this technology I ever experienced personally was at one of the pizza delivery restaurants. They answered the phone, "Hello Mr. Cohen. Last time you got a medium cheese pizza. Would you like the same tonight?", which reduced your part of the conversation to "yes" and the phone call to about ten seconds.]

The blog ads, and the services like the one I've (temporarily) installed above, are freaky. But they also fall into the uncanny divide. This is not so much because they are creepy, but because they are awkward. I would never refer to, in my own case, "Northampton, United States" or actually say or write that sentence. I'm perfectly happy to deal with a machine -- I use ATMs, I shop and bank online, I appreciate a good phone system that gives me answers now rather than simply put me on hold for the next available operator, and at least a quarter of the time I call people, I'd rather that their voice mail picks up -- but I don't need or like the pretence that the machine is a person. Keep your robots firmly on the far side of the uncanny divide and we'll do fine.

[The welcoming sentence is a free service from these people: http://www.geobytes.com/. All they ask in return is that, every 50th time their server is accessed, the page gets redirected to their site. I find that a fairly obnoxious practice and would apologize to anyone caught up in it, but the joke's on them: this is a secret blog.]


Oroborous said...

What's the deal with the Rancho Cucamonga greeting ?

While that's been one of my favorite city names for years, it seems unlikely that GeoBytes knows that.

Bret said...

It got my city right. Batting 500!

Brit said...

Oh, is it meant to welcome us all differently?

Since mine implied that I was a Brummie (from Birmingham), it might has well have told me to f*** off.

Brit said...

Ah, now I've read David's actual post, I understand.

Thank you for introducing me to the concept of the Uncanny Valley.

Dr Who played on this phenomenon all the time, by making its scariest baddies operate directly in the Valley. In one of the recent episodes, a load of shop window dummies came to live. Now that was nightmare-inducing.

Brit said...

Came to 'life', that should read.

They didn't come to live with me (that would have been very scary).