Robophobia!

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The Robots of Death (c) BBCBack in 1977 there was a classic Doctor Who serial, The Robots of Death. On a remote desert planet, the crew of a mining vessel are picked off one by one by a mysterious assassin. The murderer must be a member of the crew, unless it is one of their servant robots, a concept that is too horrible to contemplate.

Although the people of earth have become dependent on robots to do all the menial jobs in their society, there is a great deal of revulsion directed at their android servants. In one moment of extreme crisis, one crewmember has a sort of nervous breakdown. According to the Doctor, this was brought on by ‘robophobia’: an irrational fear of robots.

Surprisingly, it seems that robophobia may be real. Scientists have found that we are unnerved when speaking to a very realistic robot, an android. Most people are comfortable talking with a robot when it is obviously a machine. However, as the robot’s appearance becomes more and more humanoid, there comes a tipping point, known as the ‘uncanny valley.’

Once the uncanny valley is reached, people become scared and uncomfortable when interacting with the android. Researchers suspect that this may be because the mind automatically feels fear when we see something that looks human, but displays odd or peculiar body language.

So life imitates art. Credit to the Doctor Who team for predicting this trend thirty-seven years ago. For a more lengthy review of this case, check out this article from Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, Learning to love the alien.

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