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New Study Suggests the ‘Uncanny Valley’ Is Real

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In 1970, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori argued that humans find humanoid robots appealing only up to a point. As robots start to look more and more human, there’s a moment at which they reach a strange middle ground—they appear mostly human but are still identifiably “other.” Mori called this moment the “Uncanny Valley.” 

New York Magazine explains, “Whereas a robot like Wall-E can be easily parsed by our brain as being robotic, those in the uncanny valley often … elicit feelings of unease because they’re close to being human, but not.”

Though the theory has become increasingly popular over the last few decades, there has been little empirical evidence to back it up. One 2011 study of subjects' response to lifelike robots suggests the effect may come from the brain's inability to reconcile a convincing appearance with robotic motion. A systematic review of the research on the phenomenon conducted this year concluded that “empirical evidence for the uncanny valley hypothesis is still ambiguous if not non-existent,” but that a perceptual mismatch between artificial and human features might be to blame.

Though the jury is still out, interest in the subject continues. Recently, two researchers, Maya B. Mathur and David B. Reichling, ran a new study to determine how humans respond to robots that have varying levels of human appearance. 

They started by pulling photographs of the faces of 80 real robots. Their first test simply asked volunteers to rank the robots based on how human or mechanical they seemed, and whether they seemed to be expressing a positive or negative emotion. Their second and third tests, meanwhile, got to the heart of the uncanny valley question, asking volunteers to rank how “friendly” or “creepy” each robot seemed. They found that as faces started to look more human, volunteers at first described them as more likable. But just before the robots became nearly indistinguishable from humans, likability ratings dipped—showing that subjects were having an uncanny valley reaction to the humanoid robots. 

Next, Mathur and Reichling ran experiments to determine how people perceive robots they actually interact with. Testing for perceived “likability” and “trust,” the researchers found that, once again, likability dipped significantly when robot visages entered the uncanny valley. Trust, meanwhile, dipped slightly, but not nearly as much as likability. 

While more research is needed to interpret these preliminary findings, Mathur and Reichling’s study found significant support for Mori’s original hypothesis. So if you get creeped out by humanoid robots like Bina48 or the baby robots used in a recent psychology study, there's now more evidence to explain that feeling. 

[h/t: New York Magazine]

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Amazon Is Reportedly Working on a Home Robot
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If you feel as though Amazon’s various Echo devices, Dash buttons, Kindle readers, Prime boxes, and other products have left you needing even more of the shopping giant’s presence in your life, you’re in luck. According to reports, the company is working on a robot that could soon be locomoting around your home and collecting terabytes of data in the process.

Bloomberg reports that Amazon is currently working on development of the robots under the project name “Vesta,” after the Roman goddess of hearth and home. The speculation is that Amazon wants to finalize a design that would allow the robot to move from one room to another and utilize an on-board camera to acquire information about their human companion. Those familiar with the project believe that it might be a kind of mobile Alexa, Amazon’s current AI interface that allows people to order products and acts as a kind of universal remote for the home.

With a camera and wheels, a portable Alexa might be able to be more proactive in checking for bathrooms low on toilet paper or kitchen cupboards that might need more packaged goods. It might also be able to respond to commands when its owner has moved to an area out of Alexa’s reach.

The size, features, battery life, price, and adorableness of the robot are all still unknown. If the project continues to move forward, it might be beta-tested in Amazon employee homes in late 2018, before coming to market in 2019.

[h/t the Verge]

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Watch a Robot Solve a Rubik's Cube in .38 Seconds
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The record for fastest Rubik's Cube completion is impressive, just 4.69 seconds as of September 2017, but the record held by a robot is hard to believe—even when you see it with your own eyes.

Blink and you might miss the feat accomplished in the video below, shared by The Kid Should See This. In it, a robot transforms the jumbled kid's toy into a cube with perfectly uniform sides in just 0.38 seconds, a time that earned the machine the record for fastest Rubik's Cube completion by a robot in March 2018.

The secret to the robot's remarkable Rubik's Cube skills is a smart software that can determine the color of each square from webcam images. From there, it calculates the exact movements necessary to produce a perfect cube, and then it makes them in a fraction of a second.

The biggest issue for the team wasn't engineering the robot to be super fast: It was making sure the cube didn't fall apart as it was being scrambled. To their surprise, they only destroyed four toys during the process.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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