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A new exhibition surveys five centuries of robotic invention

Robots

Ben Russell, Curator
Science Museum London
Through 3 September 2017

For at least five centuries, humans have been dreaming up intelligent robots to do our bidding: from performing mundane tasks to completing difficult or complex endeavors that we cannot do ourselves. This 500-year quest is the subject of a groundbreaking new exhibition, entitled Robots, at the Science Museum London. Crossing boundaries of time and geography, this extensive exhibition on humanoid robots features an amazing collection of creations, from the mechanical monks of the 16th century to the intelligent androids of today.

Modern robots would not exist without the era of clockwork automata, so a considerable portion of the exhibition is devoted to mechanized artifacts from centuries past. The intriguing “Silver Swan” automaton shines at the center of this part of the exhibition. Operated by a set of three internal clockwork mechanisms, the swan catches a tiny fish from the flowing water on which it appears to be floating. Rotary glass rods surrounded by silver leaves provide the spectator with an illusion of a moving stream. A timeless masterpiece from the 1700s, it still fills the gazes of viewers with astonishment and admiration more than two centuries later.

The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The Silver Swan automaton, c. 1773.

Mechanized men and women of all shapes and sizes await visitors in a room dedicated to modern humanoid robots. “RoboThespian,” the first commercially produced full-sized humanoid robot, gestures and speaks, performing vocal exercises and completing theatrical performances every 20 minutes. “Robina,” a pint-sized partner robot on wheels that served for several years as a museum tour guide, is also on display.

The ambitious robotic endeavors of a number of Japanese automotive giants act as ambassadors for their respective companies’ technological prowess. Considered one of the world’s most advanced humanoid robots, Honda’s “ASIMO” is outstandingly interactive, capable of recognizing movements, sounds, faces, postures, and gestures. Not to be outdone, Toyota’s “Harry” stands nearby. With nimble fingers, movable lips, and “breath,” Harry was designed to play the trumpet.

“YuMi,” a dual-arm assembly robot developed for a new era of industrial automation, embodies industry’s goal of enabling robots to work safely side-by-side with people. With flexible hands, and parts-feeding mechanisms, it is capable of performing delicate tasks, making it potentially useful for assembling small electronic and medical devices. “Baxter,” another dual-arm collaborative robot, directs its gaze to indicate what it is planning to do and can memorize and repeat tasks taught by a human co-worker.

Plastiques Photography; Courtesy of the Science Museum

A collection of prosthetic arms underlines the exhibition’s emphasis on the sometimes blurred interfaces between man and machine.

One challenge long faced by roboticists has been to create biological appearances for humanoid robots. With the help of new materials, we are now able to convincingly reproduce the look of human skin, hair, and other tissues. But robots that are too realistic can be jarring. An animatronic baby, the first robot that visitors encounter in the exhibition, is eerily human-like, despite only being able to execute a few preprogrammed movements. With human-like dimensions and extremely realistic features, the beautiful “Kodomoroid,” a silicon-skinned female android, sits in the next room, peacefully reading robot-related news stories to visitors.

Why are robots so often humanoid? One answer might be found in anthropomorphism—our innate tendency to attribute human characteristics and behavior to others. Artificial companions with whom we can experience connection, sympathy, and even a loving relationship are a recurrent theme in robotics. Take “Kaspar,” a minimally expressive, childlike robot that acts as a social mediator for children with autism. It is often difficult for autistic individuals to understand emotions and develop social interaction skills. Kaspar is capable of distinguishing a gentle touch from a harsh one and reacting accordingly, using its built-in touch sensors. Its simplified reactive face helps autistic children practice social interactions.

Plastiques Photography; Courtesy of the Science Museum

A visitor examines Lucy, a robot whose synthetic brain is composed of 50,000 artificial neurons.

Another reason we tend toward the humanoid form when it comes to robotic design could be much more functional: Such robots can take advantage of human infrastructure. A conventional wheeled robot is not able to climb stairs easily, for example, but a walking robot could. Recognizing the importance of robots that can operate in the built-for-humans world, a 2013 disaster-response-focused robotics competition sponsored by DARPA required participants to create a robot that could drive a utility vehicle, open a door, climb a ladder, and close a valve.

While all human-made creations are the reflections of human needs and desires, humanoid robots mirror the ambitions, hopes, and worries of society in a uniquely expressive way. This exhibition invites spectators to imagine a future with robots that not only exist alongside us but also live with us in symbiotic relationships.
Yet, despite our persistent fear of a future filled with intellectually superior machines, the field of humanoid robotics is still in its infancy. The intellectual and physical capabilities of our artificial children are far inferior to our own—for now.

About the author

The reviewers are at the Department of Aeronautics, Imperial College London, London, UK.