My Robot Babies post mentions the ‘Uncanny Valley’ phenomenon; the moment in which a robot (or animation) becomes too eerily close to being human and our brain kicks in with feelings of repulsion. As more humanoid robots (robots that have human features such as legs and arms) are used in public spaces such as airports and shopping malls around the world, this repellent effect on our brain has become an important aspect for robot researchers. As someone who has spent years running teambuilding events, I am intrigued as to what it will feel like to work alongside a humanoid. This is an aspect that has not had much opportunity to be researched yet, but I believe robot/colleague impact will become as important as robot/customer impact as we see sales of humanoids rising around the world.
So… fast forward to 2025 and you have been asked to choose your next colleague from the robot catalogue. You want a co-worker who will do all the boring bits of your job, but because you work in isolation on a night shift you also want something of a companion too. Do you choose something that looks like a human? Fine at 2pm amid daytime team discussion, but imagine that when alone with it at 2am. Could make a good horror film…
Perfect for Halloween, the time when the film industry capitalises on creepy and scary films! So based on the Uncanny Valley effect research, may I suggest that you choose something non-human looking…it turns out that us humans don’t really like our robots to look too much like us. It unnerves us because our brain has to work harder to reconcile what it’s seeing, so it repels us to suppress any desire to get genetically involved with it.
Incidentally, I did always find it fascinating looking at the bestseller lists during my time at Ann Summers. It’s only now with my robot lens that I can see that the more ‘life-like’ the product was, the less likely it was to sell. Seen as too creepy. In contrast, products that had a non-human appearance, such as the Rampant Rabbit, had record-breaking sales year on year. Little insight there for anyone interested in the fascinating business of intimate tech!
I am sure that we are going to see a lot more ‘when robots go bad’ films in the next few years as we grapple with more human/robot scenarios. So what would you find scarier – a robot that looks like the mechanical Terminator one (no skin, red eye) or a robot that looks like a pretend human like the ones the Channel 4 series Humans (clothed and with skin)? Personally, I found the most chilling image from the first C4 series being the sight of the Synth sitting there downstairs, alone in the dark recharging. Scary! Scary because it looks so lifelike sitting there lit by the moonlight, but we are unable to predict or influence its intention because it is not one of us. We therefore cannot trust it. Imagine now, that synth being the only company throughout your night shift in 2025.
My point to this week’s post is this: if humans find robots that are ‘too human’ instinctively repellent, then this has big implications for workplaces that are looking to increase their customer-facing technology. It may be okay for a quick customer interaction but a different story working alongside a robot day in day out. An employee can only express outward what s/he feels inwardly about their organisation. So to create ‘living workplaces’ amid increased tech there will be a need for real human interactions and connections to your organisation’s values and purpose. Real human leadership to prevent creating a zombie workplace. Otherwise the future of work feels a bit creepy. Imagine a fully automated warehouse with the lights off (why would you ever need them on?) as your colleague robot stares unblinking into the dark. BOO!
The robots are coming… look busy!