Robot deemed “too scary” to show to kids

Behold Morgui. The robot was built by Kevin Warwick, a well-known UK roboticist at the University of Reading, as a “rapid reaction” bot — it has sensors in its eyes that let it track where people are in the room and stare at them. Apparently this has so totally freaked out observers that Reading’s ethics committee told Warwick he couldn’t show it to minors, or use them in any experiments involving Morgui. As Warwick told The Guardian:

“We want to investigate how people react when they first encounter Mo, as we lovingly like to call the robot,” said Prof Warwick. “Through one of Mo’s eyes, he can watch people’s responses to him following them around. It appears this is not deemed acceptable for under 18-year-olds without prior consent from their legal guardian. This presents us with a big problem as we cannot demonstrate Mo in action either to visitors or potential students.”

For years, I’ve been writing about the Uncanny Valley effect — the idea that when simulations of human life become too super-realistic, they become creepy. I’ve generally only written about this in the context of video games, but this reminds me that the Uncanny Valley idea came originally from a roboticist, Masahiro Mori, when he noticed that his most realistic bots were giving observers the willies.

Of course, it probably doesn’t help that Morgui looks like a T-800 Terminator without the artificial skin. Warwick might have had more luck if he’d put his gear inside a Care Bear o something.

Though maybe not! A couple of years ago, I saw MIT’s Cynthia Breazeal show off Leonardo, a little furry robot with big anime eyes. When she turned it on, a collective shudder went through the audience: Leonardo was about 99% “lifelike”, and thus had tumbled decisively into the Valley. He looked insanely creepy and haunts my dreams still. Breazeal seemed puzzled by our reaction, and claims kids really love Leonardo, so maybe we were an outlying group … but honestly, it thoroughly unsettled me. So maybe a robot’s being designed to be “cute” or not doesn’t ultimately impact whether it goes Uncanny or not. After all, a Roomba is technically as “robotic” looking as Morgui … but Roombas are so low-fi and un-Uncanny that they’re adorable.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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