ROBOTS, THE 500 YEAR QUEST TO MAKE MACHINES HUMAN

Having been invited to attend of a new exhibition devoted to the science of robotics presently being staged at London’s science Museum by an old friend, I duly made forth towards Kensington in efforts to glean an insight into the selection of mechanical marvels that had been forwarded upon the premises for public display.
Confronted by a virtually impenetrable crowd of people upon arrival, a circumstance attributable to my visit’s coincidence with the scholastic half-term period, I hastily made headway for a local coffee shop, a diversion which, in permitting opportunity to discuss the detail of the show with my friend, led forth to a decision to visit the neighbouring Natural History Museum, an establishment that in, similarly being scourged with a relentless crowd of prospectors, resulted in a protracted excursion through the backstreets of Kensington past the Imperial College and ultimately towards the galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum, a haven which, in affording respite from the throng that yet milled ceaselessly along Exhibition Road, granted us languid grace to re-appraise our visit.

Eventually, after some hours investigating the Victoria and Albert Museum’s magnificent collection halls both I and my friend braved return back across the threshold of the Science Museum and attempted to book tickets for the Robot exhibition, an appointment which, in countenancing a two hour waiting list, led forth to both a stiff drink at the establishment’s unique electro-bar and an exploration of it’s antique aircraft halls.
Finally, after much meandering and casual speculation upon matters of a robotic nature, we gained access to the show, entering it’s precinct via an external parade distinguished by a wall of mechanised skulls equipped rather ominously with moving eyes in the late afternoon after many of the younger spectators had left.
Upon entering the exhibition hall we were confronted by an unnervingly realistic artificial child, a creation which, in being dressed in a nappy and displayed upon a fluorescent quilt, was, although perhaps a little jaundiced, capable of gesticulating in a relatively convincing manner to the effect of conveying a plausible interpretation of infancy.
Proposing to chart the evolution of android science from 1570 through to the present the “Robots, The 500 Year Quest To Make Machines Human,” exhibition is arranged to provide an opportunity to witness the advances that have been made in the manufacture of automated human simulacra since the late Tudor era.
Featuring a collection of over one hundred robots, fifteen of which are fully operational, “The Robots, The 500 Year Quest To Make Machines Human,” exhibition studies the origins of robotic science in the development of both astronomical clocks and religiously inspired mechanical effigies during the sixteenth century, tracing the course of events that led to the application of similar technology in porcelain writing dolls, lathes and “orreries”, (rotating models of the solar system), throughout the eighteenth century, before analysing the widespread usage of such principles in the mechanised calculators, and automated weaving looms of the Victorian era.
Perhaps the most beautiful example of the many mechanisms on display from this era is a silver swan constructed as a museum curiosity in 1773 by James Cox and John Joseph Merlin. Seated upon an artificial pond fashioned from a row of rotating glass spirals, the mechanical bird was, when operational, recorded to be capable of extracting a number of robotically animated fish from the expanse at it’s girth with it’s beak, a graceful action which, in poeticising that of much eighteenth century cloth weaving apparatus, leads one to the conclusion that the practicalities of engineering do not necessarily equate the most compelling imitations of life.
Having established what, in modern terms, could be deemed a rather tenuous historical pretext, the exhibition proceeds to cover the more immediately familiar cultural iconography of the twentieth century, featuring a model of “Maria”, the soulless female automaton designed by Walter Schulze-Mittendorff in 1927 for Fritz Lang’s Epic black and white science fiction film “Metropolis”, “Eric”, a talking metal man constructed in 1928 by the military engineer Captain W,H. Richards, “Cygan” a huge remote controlled stage robot built in 1957 by the aeromodeller Piero Florito and the “A T 800” cyborg endoskeleton used in the film “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”.
After having covered the many varieties of automata which presently distinguish much of what may be termed modern science fiction, the exhibition proceeds to provide a number of mechanisms which, in genuinely attempting to emulate human movement and co-ordination through the employ of complex networks of servos, strings, gears and batteries initially appear far less complete than their simpler counter-parts, resembling instead examples of bizarre surgical experiments devised to extend the influence of human cruelty beyond the limits of mortal endurance.
Created by a number of different robotic engineers including Rob Knight, Owen Holland, Matthew Walker, Peter Longyear and Steve Grand during the early twenty first century, these homunculi are, despite their emaciated appearance, recorded to be capable of convincingly replicating human movement through a direct emulation of the manner in which tendons and muscles exert leverage within the body.
Although these creations are fairly impressive in their own right, perhaps the most exceptional examples of android science presented for display at the museum are the operative models which throng the display hall of the exhibition’s final room.
Being both well finished in sculpted plastic carapaces and actively engaged in performing chores, these are the creations that make the division between televisual interpretations of automata and practical technology seem possible.
Amongst this collection are a troupe of trumpet playing robots constructed in collaboration with the Toyota car company in 2004, the “Asimo” robot built by the Honda car corporation at approximately the same time, “Robo-Thespian 3”, a talking android that, in being created by the British company Engineered Arts in 2013, notably possesses a pair of emphatic roving eyes fashioned from two television screens, “Reem”, a service robot which, in being conceived by the Spanish as a tour guide, bears a striking resemblance to a storm trooper, “YuMi” a remarkably dextrous pair of diagonally poised robotic arms designed in Switzerland and “Baxter”, a fairly formidable “collaborative” robot that is recorded to be capable of detecting glitches in it’s work programme.
Beyond this there are a number of intriguingly life-like automata clad in prosthetic skin to resemble human beings on display, a list of creations which, in including the Kaspar robot designed in Hertfordshire for usage as a companion to under-confident children and the Kodomoroid Communication Android, a machine which in resembling a Japanese girl, is recorded to be able to read the evening news, cumulatively represent a disturbing foray into a world where superfice may, in being mistaken for reality. ultimately prove incapable of substantiating it’s claims.
The last robot on display is “iCub”, a machine which, in being constructed by the Italian Institute of Technology in 2004, is, although over a decade old, presently recorded to be one of the most advanced synthetic humans in the world.
Crafted in the likeness of a three year old child replete with black plastic limbs and a polished white cranium, “iCub” is observed to defy the most obvious obstacle that those acquainted with the minutiae of robotic science may face, the problem of endowing their creations with the capacity to learn from past event.
Loosely termed artificial intelligence, the ability of a machine to recognise objects and learn from it’s mistakes beyond the detail of pre-recorded programmes is, in terms of the iCub robot, believed to be possible through the interface of sensory devices such as microphones and cameras with the various mechanisms that dictate robotic actions.
Synonymous with computer software inasmuch as that minute electrical signals can, in affecting each other, also drive larger apparatus, the science of artificial Intelligence predicts a realm of sensory awareness bounded by rules which, in both exceeding and re-defining human cognitive faculty ironically still mean nothing beyond the action that they may ultimately be presumed to represent in a robot’s code of practise.
It seems that, despite antipathy, the selfishly unpredictable nature of mankind, will, in wagering the out-come of far more obvious probabilities than those delineated by machine code, remain both easier to interpret and more immediately rational in real terms than the complex dictums of artificial intelligence.
Running through to September 2017, The “Robots, The 500 Year Quest To Make Machines Human” exhibition presently provides an excellent cross-section of information upon the topic of automated science and for those yet intrigued by the efforts invested in the cultivation of artificial life, comes highly recommended.
For more information please contact…

sciencemuseum.org.uk/robots

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A Victorian man trapped in the twenty first century

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Tom Scrow

Tom Scrow

A Victorian man trapped in the twenty first century

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