Charting the fascinating path that robots have taken over the years

The Science Museum in London will host a unique exhibition for seven months

Introductory speeches are commonplace at press launches, but far rarer is for one of them to be delivered by a robot. RoboThespian, a lanky, luminescent, human-like robot, who will be on display at the London Science Museum’s blockbuster exhibition charting the history robots, is a charismatic speaker, with the animated intonation of a confident orator, and digital eyes that focus and look around in an eerily-human way.

Precisely when robots came to be created does of course depend on one’s definition of a robot, and as curator Ben Russell points out there are 30 or 40 different characterisations. The exhibition links robots to our quest to “recreate ourselves in mechanized form” and therefore takes the starting point as around 500 years ago, when in the 16th century, the quest to understand the workings of the human body spurred the creation of mechanical devices. On display is one of the earliest such automated pieces: an automaton monk from 1560, created for Philip II of Spain, which could pray and walk across the table, moving its lips and raising its crucifix. There’s a spectacular silver swan from the 18th century that attracted huge crowds at the time with its ability to elegantly sway and pick up ornamental fish and lots of other fascinating mechanical pieces from across the world.

However it wasn’t till the 20th century that the word “robot” was coined: derived from the Czech word “robota” which means forced labour, and which was used by author Karel Čapek in his 1920 play about artificial humans, Rossum’s Universal Robots . It was also at this stage that robots began to take the shape that we traditionally associate with them —the metallic, somewhat humanoid figures that have dominated literature and film. There’s a replica of one of the earliest — the ‘Maria’ robot used in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolish in 1927, and Eric , one of the earliest ones made in the U.K.

Artificial intelligence

It was in the 1950s that the quest to imbue robots with intelligence and the ability to operate without remote control or a microphone began. On display is a cybernetic tortoise from 1951 that had the ability to find its own way. The exhibition also highlights the huge range of ways robots are capable of aiding human life: from those used in factories to the home, and even one capable of acting as a mediator for children with autism, helping them learn about human interaction.

However, many challenges remain, as the exhibition carefully sets out. It highlights some of the current research under way, in particular efforts to create robots that are able to learn from humans and its surroundings. There’s Lucy, a British robot with 50,000 artificial neurons that over a period of years has learned to distinguish bananas and apples, and iCub, one of an Italian series of 30 robots that mimic toddlers, as they learn to discover the world around them, through their senses, learning as they go.

However, surprisingly to many, the biggest challenge, lies not in artificial intelligence, but in something more fundamental, says Will Jackson, the director of Engineered Arts, the British company behind RoboThespian. “Software is way ahead but the biggest challenge is mechanical,” he says, noting that we are yet to have a robot capable of sustained and close human interaction and replicating the preciseness of human beings, or the strength of our muscles.

The exhibition is open at the Science Museum in central London from February 8 to September 3, 2017.

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