Your Brain On Androids

 

ScienceDaily (July 15, 2011) — Ever get the heebie-jeebies at a wax museum? 
Feel uneasy with an anthropomorphic robot? 
What about playing a video game
or watching an animated movie, where the human characters are pretty 
realistic but just not quite right and maybe a bit creepy? 
If yes, then you've probably been a visitor to what's called the
 "uncanny valley."

 The phenomenon has been described anecdotally for years,
 but how and why this happens is still a subject of debate in robotics, 
computer graphics and neuroscience. Now an international team of
 researchers, led by Ayse Pinar Saygin of the University of California, 
San Diego, has taken a peek inside the brains of people viewing videos 
of an uncanny android (compared to videos of a human and a 
robot-looking robot).

 Published in the Oxford University Press journal Social Cognitive 
and Affective Neuroscience, the functional MRI study suggests that
 what may be going on is due to a perceptual mismatch between 
appearance and motion.

 The term "uncanny valley" refers to an artificial agent's drop in 
likability when it becomes too humanlike. People respond positively 
to an agent that shares some characteristics with humans -- think dolls, 
cartoon animals, R2D2. As the agent becomes more human-like, it 
becomes more likeable. But at some point that upward trajectory 
stops and instead the agent is perceived as strange and disconcerting.
 Many viewers, for example, find the characters in the animated film
 "Polar Express" to be off-putting. And most modern androids, 
including the Japanese Repliee Q2 used in the study here, are also 
thought to fall into the uncanny valley.
 Saygin and her colleagues set out to discover if what they 
call the "action perception system" in the human brain is tuned 
more to human appearance or human motion, with the general 
goal, they write, "of identifying the functional properties of brain
systems that allow us to understand others' body movements and actions."

 They tested 20 subjects aged 20 to 36 who had no experience 
working with robots and hadn't spent time in Japan, where there's 
potentially more cultural exposure to and acceptance of androids, 
or even had friends or family from Japan.

 The subjects were shown 12 videos of Repliee Q2 performing 
such ordinary actions as waving, nodding, taking a drink of 
water and picking up a piece of paper from a table. They were 
also shown videos of the same actions performed by the human 
on whom the android was modeled and by a stripped version 
of the android -- skinned to its underlying metal joints and wiring, 
revealing its mechanics until it could no longer be mistaken for a human. 

 That is, they set up three conditions: a human with biological 
appearance and movement; a robot with mechanical appearance 
and mechanical motion; and a human-seeming agent with the 
exact same mechanical movement as the robot.

 At the start of the experiment, the subjects were shown each 
of the videos outside the fMRI scanner and were informed 
about which was a robot and which human.

 The biggest difference in brain response the researchers noticed 
was during the android condition -- in the parietal cortex, on 
both sides of the brain, specifically in the areas that connect 
the part of the brain's visual cortex that processes bodily 
movements with the section of the motor cortex thought to 
contain mirror neurons (neurons also known as "monkey-see, 
monkey-do neurons" or "empathy neurons").

 According to their interpretation of the fMRI results, the researchers 
say they saw, in essence, evidence of mismatch. The brain "lit up" 
when the human-like appearance of the android and its robotic 
motion "didn't compute."

 "The brain doesn't seem tuned to care about either biological 
appearance or biological motion per se," said Saygin, an 
assistant professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego 
and alumna of the same department. "What it seems to be 
doing is looking for its expectations to be met -- for appearance 
and motion to be congruent."

 In other words, if it looks human and moves likes a human, 
we are OK with that. If it looks like a robot and acts like a 
robot, we are OK with that, too; our brains have no difficulty 
processing the information. The trouble arises when -- 
contrary to a lifetime of expectations -- appearance and motion are at odds.

"As human-like artificial agents become more commonplace, 
perhaps our perceptual systems will be re-tuned to accommodate
these new social partners," the researchers write. "Or perhaps, 
we will decide it is not a good idea to make them so closely
in our image after all."

 Saygin thinks it's "not so crazy to suggest we brain-test-drive 
robots or animated characters before spending millions of dollars
on their development."

 It's not too practical, though, to do these test-drives in expensive 
and hard-to-come-by fMRI scanners. So Saygin and her students 
are currently on the hunt for an analogous EEG signal. EEG 
technology is cheap enough that the electrode caps are being 
developed for home use.
The research was funded by the Kavli Institute for Brain and 
Mind at UC San Diego. Saygin was additionally supported by 
the California Institute of Telecommunication and Information 
Technology (Calit2) at UCSD.

 Saygin's coauthors are Thierry Chaminade of Mediterranean
Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, France; Hiroshi Ishiguro 
of Osaka University and ATR, Japan; Jon Driver of University 
College London; and Chris Firth of University of Aarhus, Denmark.
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