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The uncanny valley

The robotics field undoubtedly has some major challenges to face before any Ray Bradbury visions of our android-filled future are to be realized. One of the biggest may be a problem not of mechanics but of human psychology: the fact that most people find things that look almost but not quite human to be incredibly creepy. Take, for instance, the weird-looking animated "people" in the movies Polar Express and Final Fantasy; they looked uncannily like people -- but not just like people -- and the movies bombed. In 1970, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori tried to figure out why people are repulsed by the uncannily human, and he came up with this fascinating graph:
Note that "familiarity" here means emotional response. What's interesting is that the more human something looks -- up to a certain point -- the more we respond favorably to it. (That's why we like Alf and Shrek and Little Nemo; they're anthropomorphized to seem more human.) But get too close to looking human, and our affection turns to revulsion, and quick. That's what mori calls the "uncanny valley," which in the case of non-moving objects includes not-quite-human things like corpses, and in the moving (and thus more repulsive) category includes zombies. If Mori were making this graph now and not 37 years ago, we're pretty sure he would've placed some of the latest triumphs of robotics near the nadir of that valley.

Take the work of Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, one of Japan's leading roboticists. He's made several robots in the last few years that are likenesses of real people, including himself, a prominent Japanese newscaster and even his four-year-old daughter. They're all downright creepy, and the more advanced and realistic they get, the creepier they get. (When his daughter saw her robot double, she freaked out, and thereafter wouldn't go anywhere near the thing.) But don't take our word for it: we found some video of Dr. Ishiguro's robots, and some videos of zombies. Which are creepier?

Robot!

Zombie!

Robot!

Thanks to Damn Interesting for the info.

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Stradivarius Violins Get Their Distinctive Sound By Mimicking the Human Voice
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Italian violinist Francesco Geminiani once wrote that a violin's tone should "rival the most perfect human voice." Nearly three centuries later, scientists have confirmed that some of the world's oldest violins do in fact mimic aspects of the human singing voice, a finding which scientists believe proves "the characteristic brilliance of Stradivari violins."

Using speech analysis software, scientists in Taiwan compared the sound produced by 15 antique instruments with recordings of 16 male and female vocalists singing English vowel sounds, The Guardian reports. They discovered that violins made by Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari, the pioneers of the instrument, produce similar "formant features" as the singers. The resonance frequencies were similar between Amati violins and bass and baritone singers, while the higher-frequency tones produced by Stradivari instruments were comparable to tenors and contraltos.

Andrea Amati, born in 1505, was the first known violin maker. His design was improved over 100 years later by Antonio Stradivari, whose instruments now sell for several million dollars. "Some Stradivari violins clearly possess female singing qualities, which may contribute to their perceived sweetness and brilliance," Hwan-Ching Tai, an author of the study, told The Guardian.

Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. A 2013 study by Dr. Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, also pointed to a link between the sounds produced by 250-year-old violins and those of a female soprano singer.

According to Vox, a blind test revealed that professional violinists couldn't reliably tell the difference between old violins like "Strads" and modern ones, with most even expressing a preference for the newer instruments. However, the value of these antique instruments can be chalked up to their rarity and history, and many violinists still swear by their exceptional quality.

[h/t The Guardian]

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