Visitors in the Dream section of the Robots exhibition © Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum.

A Retrospective of the Future

10th February 2017

To call someone a robot is considered an insult, but for how much longer? Jack Watkins visits a new Science Museum exhibition that looks at 500 years of humanoid robots…

When Peter Crouch, the venerable, well-liked Stoke City striker, scored his 100th Premier League goal at the start of this month, he celebrated by doing his trademark ‘robot dance.’ Involving a series of angular body poses, Crouchy’s impression very much conforms to everybody’s stereotype image of how a robot behaves – but is it getting out of date? A candidate for the upcoming French presidential election has just floated the idea of a tax on robots. So it’s come to this, has it? Robots are now so sophisticated they can be considered eligible for taxation? I can’t wait to see the first one being hauled up before the courts for non-payment. Who do you think would win the case?

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, a robot was a somewhat comical figure in children’s sci-fi adventures like Lost in Space and Doctor Who. They were unbelievably knowledgeable, yet liable to short circuit and start babbling complete nonsense if you overloaded your demands. This, of course, made robots as endearingly unpredictable as my Dad’s Ford Anglia or our first colour TV set, both prone to breaking down. They reflected the charm of the age. The 21st century robot, by contrast, threatens to be not only boringly omniscient, but technically infallible. For those of us still struggling to adjust to the final years of the 20th century, let alone the start of the new millennium, it’s getting a bit alarming. Where has all the romance gone, and are we about to be taken over?

And yet robots go to the heart of our age-old curiosity about ourselves. Who are we – and is it possible to recreate machines that are in our own image? The Science Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition sets out to explore this obsession, and for anyone who thinks gadgets were largely a creation of the industrial age and onwards, it might come as a surprise to find that, among the assembled cast of over a hundred robots, there is one from as far back as the fifteenth century that qualifies for the description.

Hieronymus Fabricus was an Italian professor who taught the study of anatomy and surgery at the University of Padua. He designed the first theatre for public anatomical dissections, amidst much other pioneering work. And it seems he also designed a curious articulated iron manikin to teach students about bone setting and the structure of the human body. It’s been dubbed the ‘original Iron Man.’

It was said that Leonardo da Vinci made a robot knight to entertain the Milanese court, and another weird and rather eerie exhibit is a mechanical monk built in the 1560s, a marvel of early automation. This Spanish monk is made of wood and moves by clockwork. As it opens its mouth, its hands and arms move as if in silent prayer, and its eyes look down to its rosary beads. One story about its possible creation maintains that it was made by a Spanish clockmaker for King Phillip II as a penitent automaton after the king’s son had recovered from a life-threatening illness. When the king prayed for his son’s life to be spared, he also promised ‘a miracle for a miracle’, and the mechanical monk was the fulfilment of his promise.

Another curiosity is a robotic swan, on loan from the Bowes Museum in County Durham (and only on show for the first six weeks of this seven-month exhibition before it must be returned). This life-sized beauty was made in 1773, its creator trying to imitate real life, and its graceful movements enthralled Mark Twain when he saw it at the Paris Exhibition in 1867. ‘I watched a silver swan,’ he wrote, ‘which had a living grace about its movements and a living intelligence in its eyes – watching him swimming around as comfortably and unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop.’

The word robot, all the same, was not used until as late as the 1920s. This was the period when they entered popular culture and one of the stars of the show is Eric, the UK’s first robot when built in 1928 by Captain Richards and AH Reffell. That year he deputised for the Duke of York (could anyone tell the difference?) at the opening of an exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers at London’s Royal Horticultural Hall, bowing to his audience, moving his arms and giving a four-minute address. He became quite a celebrity, as he travelled the globe, amazing large audiences.

Suddenly, however, Eric disappeared, never to return. In researching this exhibition, the Science Museum chanced upon the lost plans of his design. They launched a Kickstarter Campaign to raise £35,000 and the success of this has enabled them to employ expert robotist Giles Walker to rebuild Eric, so that he’s back in all his glory. He is, in curator Ben Russell’s words: “Everything we know and imagine a robot to be – a talking, moving, man of steel.”

Eric definitely looks like the humanoid robot of many a sci-fi movie. Then there’s Cygan, a 2.4m tall Italian-built robot of 1957 vintage, who even responded to basic voice commands. With 300,000 parts, he was controlled by short wave radio and had a television camera mounted on his body so that the operator could control his movements. He made his first appearance in Britain in 1958 when he opened the London Food Fair. Cygan was reckoned at the time to be the nearest thing to a human yet created by man, strong enough to crush a can in his fist but gentle enough to do the babysitting. He was quite a hit with the ladies, and was even seen dancing with one, cutting a few moves uncannily like those of Peter Crouch, while she balanced on his huge feet.

These ‘tin robots’ were great fun, but in the last twenty-five years technological advances have enabled the construction of robots with plastic skeletons, making their movements more flexible and lifelike. We’ve had characters like Inkha, the robotic receptionist who can dole out ‘helpful’ tips on fashion, and Robina the partner robot made by Toyota, who can do the housework, while her husband, Robin, plays the violin. If you want to see evidence of this, there’s a cringingly awful video clip available on YouTube. Seems like the robot world hasn’t quite caught up with the idea of equal rights yet.

Increasingly though, there is a focus on robots that can communicate with us and provide information in a way they have never done up to now. At the moment, the idea of a truly intelligent, sentient robot still feels like something that belongs in the realms of an HG Wells story, but for how much longer – and would this be a good or a bad development? The Science Museum’s exhibition is mainly great entertainment, but the curators also want us to ponder the implications for the future. The main thing at the moment seems to be that you mustn’t forget to recharge the batteries. As long as we’ve still got control of that switch, I think we’re okay.

‘Robots’ is at the Science Museum until 3 September. For more information, visit: https://beta.sciencemuseum.org.uk/robots

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