One restaurant will reopen to 50 percent capacity with mannequins filling other tables, WTOP News reported. This will be done to prevent patrons from feeling like they’re sitting in an empty dining room. Will diners find this comforting or creepy?
Some restrictions on coronavirus lockdowns are scheduled to lift on May 29. One of them is that some restaurants may reopen to 50 percent capacity, and The Inn at Little Washington, in Washington, Virginia, plans to circumvent the awkward feeling of an empty restaurant by placing fully dressed mannequins at unused tables. “Chef Patrick O’Connell isn’t used to empty seats in the region’s only three-star Michelin-rated restaurant,” the WTOP News article said. “So, socially distancing diners who glance toward a couple at a nearby table will likely realize they’re actually mannequins. Servers will be expected to interact with the mannequins, including speaking to them and pouring wine for them.”
This effort begs the question: Will diners find the mannequin-filled restaurant to be more comforting than an empty restaurant? Or will the almost-human mannequins bother them? Human-like robots may have the answer.
Closing the Gap with Actroids
If society continues to implement inanimate, humanoid objects like mannequins and androids, they must look relatively pleasant so humans will engage with them. In other words, we must have some kind of affinity with a robot in order to communicate with it.
“Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University in Japan addresses the problem of affinity head on,” said Dr. John Long, Professor of Biology and a Professor of Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair of Natural History at Vassar College. “He’s working with a company called Kokoro to build highly realistic humanoids [which] they call Actroids. [One] Actroid’s model name is Geminoid, and is built to gaze, blink, turn, gesture, and interact verbally with people.”
Dr. Long said that at first glance, Actroids are reminiscent of animatronics, the lifelike robots that include those at Disney World’s Hall of Presidents. However, unlike animatronics, which simply replay a recorded script and move according to pre-programmed gestures, Actroids actively engage with and respond to humans.
“Actroids have come in many different models, and more recent ones, like Actroid-SIT, have conversational autonomy,” Dr. Long said. “Actroid-SIT is getting better at social communication thanks to such features as interruptibility. Researchers found that humans tended to interrupt or try to redirect a conversation 25 percent of the time. Actroid became more successful in conversation once it could stop its current remarks and transition immediately to the new topic.”
The Uncanny Valley
The biggest hurdle that seated mannequins at The Inn at Little Washington and humanoid robots must jump doesn’t come from failing to pass as human-like. It’s the exact opposite.
“In 1970, a robotics professor, Dr. Masahiro Mori, working at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, created a hypothesis that captured what turns out to be a complex relationship between the level of our affinity for a robot and how human-like it is,” Dr. Long said. “He proposed that as a robot becomes more like a human in appearance, our affinity for it grows, at first. But as soon as the robot gets very close, but not quite, to human likeness—what you might see in a scary mask, for example—then the appeal of the robot plummets quickly to creepy.
“Professor Mori called this small region of disgust and creepiness ‘the uncanny valley.'”
To provide an example, Dr. Long contrasted Wall-E—the visibly robotic main character of the Pixar film of the same name—with Maria the Robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. When Maria is first unveiled, someone recoils because of how human she appears. This was written into the script, and Maria is played by a human actress, but it rings true with how many people react to realistic robots in real life.
Imitated life is becoming more realistic all the time. From mannequins who are treated as restaurant patrons to Actroids who interact with people, we’ve come a long way from Lost in Space‘s aptly named companion, Robot. The question of how well we accept them lies somewhere in the depths of—or maybe just beyond—the uncanny valley.
Dr. John Long contributed to this article. Dr. Long is a Professor of Biology and a Professor of Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair of Natural History at Vassar College. He also serves as the Director of Vassar’s Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, which he helped found in 2003. Professor Long received his Ph.D. in Zoology from Duke University.