Anthropomorphism of robots

Romeo Hand

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human form or other characteristics to anything other than a human being. Humans tend to anthropomorphize not only nature, but basically anything around them [1]. This also applies to technological objects and machines, such as cars, coffee machines, PCs, smart phones, and especially robots. Indeed, people have been found to anthropomorphize robots more than other technologies and to give robots qualities of living entities such as animals or other humans [2].

The tendency of applying social rules and heuristics from the domain of people to the domain of machines is particularly relevant for robotics [3]. Therefore, anthropomorphism is a central factor in a robots physical and behavioral design, and is omnipresent in social robotics research. However, it is debated which role anthropomorphism should play in a robot’s design. Is the ultimate goal to replicate the physical form and behavior of humans, such that a person can not distinguish between a robot and a person any more? This perspective is taken by Ishiguro, who developed and studied androids, which appear as human as possible, amongst others a lookalike robotic version of himself [4]. Or is it more appropriate to turn away from anthropomorphism and restrain anthropomorphic design in order to avoid the problem of the so-called “uncanny valley“? The Uncanny Valley hypothesis suggests that the more a robot resembles a human, the more affinity it engenders (Figure). However, if a robot appears nearly-human but can still be identified not to be human, it appears unnatural, evoking feelings of repulsion and discomfort [5]. This feeling does not occur when the robots looks or behaves very different form a human.

Hypothetical graph depicting the so-called “uncanny valley“: the proposed relation between the human likeness of an entity and the perceiver’s affinity for it.

Hypothetical graph depicting the so-called “uncanny valley“: the proposed relation between the human likeness of an entity and the perceiver’s affinity for it. [5]

Duffy identifies two motivations for employing anthropomorphism in social robotics [6]. Firstly, social robots operate in our physical and social spaces. In order for a domestic robot to be useful in the household, it has to manipulate our everyday objects, use our tools or climb stairs. This functional perspective implies a certain degree of anthropomorphism in its physical form. The second motivation is to use human-like qualities as personality, gestures, expressions, and emotions as a means through which social interaction with people can be facilitated.

An opposing stance to Ishiguro, who embraces anthropomorphism, is also taken by Coeckelbergh. He gives the following reasons for why it is more likely to relinquish anthropomorphism in robotic design: a) it is easier to design robots when human appearance is not required, b) robots different from humans avoid the “uncanny valley“, and c) non-human robots will be less controversial since humans relations will be similar to existing experience with non-robotic non-humans such as animals – and to some extent – computers, smart phones, or other electronic equipment [7].

Anthropomorphic design of machines and robots creates expectations by people which need to be balanced with the robots capabilities. People tend to attribute agency or intentions even to simple movements and motions which builds expectations, in a much more prominent way than with more traditional technologies [8]. What it needs is a balance of anthropomorphic form and function to hint at certain capabilities that meet the expectations of a socially intelligent entity [6]. Therefore, Duffy argues that trying to blur the boundary between a robot and human is unnecessary for successful social robots, which will be more acceptable to humans if they are built in their own image.


  1. Dautenhahn, K., Methodology and themes of human-robot interaction: a growing research field. International Journal of Advanced Robotic Systems, 2007.
  2. Forlizzi, J. How Robotic Products Become Social Products: An Ethnographic Study of Cleaning in the House. in Proceedings of the ACM/IEEE international conference on Human-robot interaction. 2007. ACM.
  3. Dautenhahn, K., Socially intelligent robots: dimensions of human–robot interaction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2007. 362(1480): p. 679-704.
  4. Ishiguro, H. Interactive humanoids and androids as ideal interfaces for humans. in Proceedings of the 11th international conference on Intelligent user interfaces. 2006. ACM.
  5. Mori, M., Bukimi no tani (the uncanny valley) (Translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki). 1970.
  6. Duffy, B.R., Anthropomorphism and the social robot. Robotics and autonomous systems, 2003. 42(3): p. 177-190.
  7. Coeckelbergh, M., Humans, animals, and robots: A phenomenological approach to human-robot relations. International Journal of Social Robotics, 2011. 3(2): p. 197-204.
  8. Young, J.E., et al., Evaluating human-robot interaction. International Journal of Social Robotics, 2011. 3(1): p. 53-67.

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