Posted on behalf of Celeste Biever
The baby’s skin looks soft and its hair downy as it blinks and stretches out its arms. Then I spot the plug and mass of wires protruding from its back.
Brainchild of London-based John Nolan Studio, the animatronic infant is a fitting start to the blockbuster Robots exhibition at London’s Science Museum. Its impressively comprehensive array of automatons is a reminder both of machine-like qualities in people, and of the challenges of imitating humans in mechanical form.
Historical automata crowd the first section, ‘Marvel’. A small, hand-carved mechanical monk from the 1560s was crafted to walk and beat its breast in contrition. Is this really a robot? Yes, says chief curator Ben Russell, who has long pondered this question: “A robot is a machine that looks life-like or behaves in life-like ways.” This summary proved a tough but useful curatorial filter, he says.
Another highlight here is the Silver Swan, a life-sized clockwork bird on a glass pool crafted in 1773 by Belgian inventor and instrument-maker John Joseph Merlin, whose work inspired Charles Babbage. (The automaton is on loan from the Bowes Museum in county Durham, northern England.) In his 1869 travelogue The Innocents Abroad, American writer Mark Twain noted the avian wonder ‘swimming’ as “comfortably and unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop”. The lifelike movements of its serpentine neck still impress – but visitors beware: to preserve the delicate machine, it will only play at certain times.
A clutch of robots classiques includes an impressive collection of dumb but engaging tin-giants dating back to the 1920s. Eric is arguably the star. The replica we see was commissioned for the exhibition and paid for by a Kickstarter campaign. Amateur engineer William Richards and mechanic Alan Reffell built the original Eric in 1928 for the annual Society of Model Engineers exhibition in London, where it a gave a speech as a stand-in for the Duke of York. Its feet bolted to a 12-volt electric motor, Eric could also stand, sit down and move its arms.
As I gaze at a Terminator from 2009 film Terminator Salvation, I’m reminded of how popular culture, as well as science and engineering, shaped the modern concept of a robot. The intimidating android “had to be there”, says Russell. “This is what people think a robot is like.” Another delight for aficionados is a 1923 first-edition copy of Czech writer Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which coined the word ‘robot’.
It’s one thing to dream, quite another to construct. The reality check is a gaggle of bots from a range of top labs — experiments shedding light on what it means to be human. Here are multiple versions of the life-sized ECCEROBOT (Embodied Cognition in a Compliantly Engineered Robot), each a skeletal display of tendons and bones. Built by robotics engineer Rob Knight, cognitive roboticist Owen Holland and the ECCEROBOT Consortium between 2004 and 2011, the series explores embodied cognition: how the structure of the human body shapes the evolution of intelligence and consciousness.
Juxtaposing several attempts at creating bipeds, this section also showcases the joy of tinkering. Honda’s well-resourced P2, unveiled in 1996, was the first full-bodied robot to walk on two legs. It stands next to the Shadow Biped — a pair of legs snaked through with wires and gauges, developed by inventor Richard Greenhill and other members of the Shadow Robot Project Group in a London attic from 1987 to 1997. (It managed a few wobbling steps.) The group evolved into the Shadow Robot Company, makers of the dexterous robotic hand on display.
The show’s research chops are also evident in the inclusion of Cog, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology project led by robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks that ended in 2003. The exhibit only features Cog’s head – a mess of wires and metal. While it’s not visually arresting, I was thrilled to see Cog: it was built to address the fascinating, once radical, question of whether human level intelligence could emerge from physical interactions with the environment, without any higher-level programming.
The emerging field of human-robot interaction gets a look-in with Inkha, built by Matthew Walker and Peter Longyear at King’s College London. A pair of bulbous eyes and rubbery lips attached to a metal frame, it served as a receptionist at King’s between 2003 and 2014. And the freakish, blue-eyed Nexi was built in 2008 by human-robot interaction pioneer Cynthia Breazeal of MIT. Through its ability to carefully control movements such as face-touching, Nexi was used to study the role of non-verbal communication.
Today, of course, robots have escaped the lab, showing up in factories, homes and even clinics. As I trek through the last room, a corridor lined with a range of humanoids already out in the real world, I ponder how robots will evolve next. Will they become ever more realistic, like the alarmingly life-like robot child Kodomoroid? Its creators at Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories in Japan have used such ‘geminoids’ — android ‘twins’ of real individuals — to monitor reactions when compared with the human originals. Robo-toddler Kaspar, by contrast, makes a virtue of robotic limitations. Its creators at the University of Hertfordshire are examining how children with autism, who can be overwhelmed by diverse facial expressions, react to Kaspar’s much simpler, carefully controlled mannerisms.
This is a timely show, in a society now grappling with the implications of the robot invasion, enabled by speedily evolving, hyper-sophisticated machines. It does a beautiful job of demonstrating robotics’ embarrassment of riches and how humanity got here, powered at first by belief, then dreams and most recently hardcore research and engineering. The question that scientists, engineers, consumers and industry now have to answer is: where do we point this formidable engine?
Celeste Biever is Nature’s chief news and features editor. She tweets at @celestebiever.
Robots runs at London’s Science Museum from 8 February to 3 September.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.