In my visual design course last semester a student brought up the concept of the uncanny valley. The idea is that there is a U-shaped curve to the relationship between how human-like a non-human entity can be and still be accepted. If something is fully human (at the extreme right of the curve), then it is fine. If it is fully un-human (at the extreme left of the curve) then it is fine also. But at the point of the curve where it is eerily “almost human” it is rejected. At this point, it gets associated with a zombie, with disease, or with sociopathy.
So it was fun to read the article contrasting R2D2 and C3PO in the May issue of Smithsonian (yes, I am a little behind).
With its stubby little body, blooping voice and wide round eye, R2-D2 was a curiously endearing machine. Fans went crazy for the droid, knitting winter hats in its shape and building computer cases that looked like its body.
The gist of the article is that we love movie robots that have all kinds of positive human traits like bravery, smarts, sense of humor, personality, as long as they don’t look too human. So good writers/directors will add some inconsistencies/non-human traits to make sure that the robot stays well to the left of the uncanny valley.
R2D2 is the easy one. He is constantly funny, brave, ingenuous, and clever. But he speaks in squeaks and whistles and his arms are rigid and he rolls on wheels. C3PO is nervous, risk-averse, geeky, and has all the standard human body parts. But he is gold, walks very robot-like, and knows 6 million languages (which is more like IBM’s Watson than Sherlock Holmes’ Watson).
So may wonder why this topic made it into the Smithsonian magazine. The museum has one of the original R2D2 and C3PO models in its permanent collection. The timing I am sure has to do with the new Star Wars movies coming out. And the topic is relevant because these two robots were among the original examples of successfully navigating the uncanny valley.