‘Uncanny Valley’ for monkeys

So there’s this psychological phenomenon called the uncanny valley. The valley refers to a dip in our approval of simulated human forms when it starts to approach very closely to actual humans while still being distinguishable. We like Homer Simpson as he is – safely confined in two dimensions, his skin a completely uniform yellow, his big goofy eyes, exactly three hairs sticking out of his head in a way that never happens with actual bald people, four fingers, et cetera. But when he looks like this

… we get a queasy reaction.

If it has a purpose, the uncanny valley is probably something we sense so that we can identify the inevitable robot uprising and subsequent enslavement before they go all Blade Runner on us. The danger of the Blade Runner scenario is that the robots have ascended the opposite side of the uncanny valley and have become indistinguishable from the humans they seek to enslave. In that case, we’ll have to administer some sort of Turing Test where we ask suspected AI about their mother while smoking cigarettes. /paranoid rant

So this psychology assistant professor at Princeton named Asif Ghazanfar was wondering if our fellow apes also had this feeling when seeing slightly flawed simulations of their own species. It turns out they do, which supports the hypothesis that the uncanny valley has some evolutionary basis. Probably it originated not in our own species, but that of an ancestor which we share with other apes. From the PhysOrg report:

“In the experiments, the monkeys, which normally coo and smack their lips to engage each other, quickly avert their glances and are frightened when confronted by the close-to-real images. When asked to peer at the less close-to-real faces and real faces, however, they viewed them more often and for longer periods.”

These scientists claim that they “asked” the monkeys to look at images, but that can’t possibly be true. They just shoved the pictures in front of their faces. Hey Professor Ghazanfar, you don’t need to pretend to coddle these monkeys. They can take it. After all, they can apparently listen to extremely bad music, so I think they can handle a few pictures.

There are a few possible explanations for the uncanny valley, none of which hold a strong consensus. And it doesn’t really seem like this research narrows down that particular question at all. For instance, fear of disease could be a selective pressure which fine-tunes our ability to identify persons and faces which are just a little ‘off,’ but that could just as easily apply to monkeys as well. Still, this is a pretty interesting finding and I would encourage you all to bore your co-workers with it.


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