Robots, Science Museum, London

*Broad sweeping statement* . . . Robots creep me out a little bit. I find mechanisms fascinating, but there is something about the desire to make a machine look human that I find quite bizarre. So I headed off to face my fear (or at least try to understand why there seems to be a desire for humanoid machines) at the Science Museums blockbuster ‘Robots’ exhibition, which sets out to tell a 500-year story of mechanical humans and our desire to re-create ourselves as machines.


I’m not going to lie, the first item on display did not help the vague phobia that I have; a robot created to imitate a baby that was commissioned from a special effects studio. Wearing a nappy and lying on its back half way up a wall, a soothing circle of light changes colour around it as it moves and breaths just like a dreaming baby. When you stand side on you can see the amount of wires going into the back of it in order for it to make these tiny human-like movements. I can appreciate that it was an incredible display of technological advances, but it was a little bit unsettling. Regardless of my personal feelings – what a wow factor it had to start the exhibition, it was hypnotic, every visitor stopped to look at it; a true conversation starter.

The first part of the exhibition put me right back into my comfort zone. Mechanisms were introduced, clocks and early wind up devices. As well as being thematic, the exhibition is organised by date, with this ‘Marvel’ area relating to early understanding of ourselves and our place within the world from 1570 – 1800. It puts forwards interesting ideas likening the human body to clockwork which leads on to the earliest creation of robots.

The Bowes Museums silver swan in this gallery was my personal highlight, maybe because it wasn’t trying to imitate a human. I am incredibly happy that it was placed alongside a video of it in action and this footage really drew an audience. The intricate mechanisms are only truly revealed when you can witness the movements of the swan, which, although not exactly life-like, clearly reflect a successful attempt at mirroring movements in nature.


This gallery was pretty dark, but the objects were beautifully lit and presented. However the glossy finish to the interpretation panels did result in them reflecting light and showing up dust and finger prints, making them less readable than if a matt finish had been chosen.

The next section ‘Obey’, which covered 1800 – 1920, looked at the industrial revolution. With video footage of an Automaton known as ‘the Mechanical Turk’, who could apparently play chess and beat human opponents. This story is set against an object which sums up the technological advances of mechanism that people worked alongside at the time of the industrial age, a loom.

I’ve already said that robots make me feel a bit uncomfortable, the ‘Dream’ section of the exhibition looks at robots through the eyes of film makers, authors and animators as well as scientists and helps to explain a little bit as to where my feelings stem from. Interestingly, the word ‘Robot’ is fairly new to the English language. It was first used in 1920 by Karel Capek, a Czech novelist, journalist and playwright who drew the word from the Slavonic ‘robota’, meaning ‘servitude’ or ‘drudgery’. It’s in this section that some of the most famous robots are on display. Everyone recognises the robot from the terminator and Metropolis. But there are other robots too, admittedly they mostly look like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz, but they show the movement toward making robots in our image as well as the use of robots in themes of popular culture and film depictions of possible futuristic human/robot relations.

One of the stars of the exhibition is Eric, the UK’s first robot . . . but it’s a bit more special than that. This robot is actually a replica of the original make in 1928, which went missing. This robot is the result of a Kickstart campaign where people who believed in the recreation project donated towards it, which is pretty special because Eric (mark 2) is now not only part of the Science Museums collection, he can also go on tour like his predecessor. People basically clubbed together to bring this robot back to life.


‘Build’ introduces an interactive element to the exhibition, with mini documentaries from scientists who work with robots, to displaying robots that emphasis how difficult it is to create machines with human abilities. Like the early daleks, robots really struggle with stairs. The gallery really emphasises how complex the human body is, by our repeated struggle to recreate it in robot form. Why are so many robots created with humanoid features? It could be that by creating them in our reflection it gives us a way to better understand the complexities of our own bodies, as well as a truly immense challenge of recreating the human form. It was a nice touch to have mini video documentaries of specialists talking about the robots that they had created that were displayed.

The final gallery is like a wall of fame for modern robotics, introducing social robots. Each is presented in its own little booth, most were able to interact with visitors. It was a museum technician’s nightmare gallery. I remember having trouble in an exhibition when ipads crashed and having to reset them every hour or so; this gallery had a lot of robots to reset. I got the impression that all the robots were capable of working, performing and interacting with the visiting audience. Maybe they were on a rota so they were not all going at once, which would make sense because some of them were pretty chatty and it could have been quite a noisy environment with them all going.


The exhibition ends with a question looking to the future and what robots could learn from us. This open ended question not only acts as a conversation starter for beyond the exhibition space, but also helps to further emphasis the ongoing development and potential of robotics in the future.

Robots: The 500-year Quest to Make Machines Human, is on at the Science Museum in London until the 3 September 2017.


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