Thanks to a Feb.7, 2017 article by Benjamin Wheelock for Salon.com for the heads up regarding the ‘Robots’ exhibit at the UK’s Science Museum in London.
Prior to the exhibition’s opening on Feb. 8, 2017, The Guardian has published a preview (more about that in a minute), a photo essay, and this video about the show,
I find the robot baby to be endlessly fascinating.
The Science Museum announced its then upcoming Feb. 8 – Sept. 3, 2017 exhibition on robots in a May ?, 2016 press release,
8 February – 3 September 2017, Science Museum, London
Admission: £15 adults, £13 concessions (Free entry for under 7s; family tickets available)
Tickets available in the Museum or via sciencemuseum.org.uk/robots
Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund
Throughout history, artists and scientists have sought to understand what it means to be human. The Science Museum’s new Robots exhibition, opening in February 2017, will explore this very human obsession to recreate ourselves, revealing the remarkable 500-year story of humanoid robots.
Featuring a unique collection of over 100 robots, from a 16th-century mechanical monk to robots from science fiction and modern-day research labs, this exhibition will enable visitors to discover the cultural, historical and technological context of humanoid robots. Visitors will be able to interact with some of the 12 working robots on display. Among many other highlights will be an articulated iron manikin from the 1500s, Cygan, a 2.4m tall 1950s robot with a glamorous past, and one of the first walking bipedal robots.
Robots have been at the heart of popular culture since the word ‘robot’ was first used in 1920, but their fascinating story dates back many centuries. Set in five different periods and places, this exhibition will explore how robots and society have been shaped by religious belief, the industrial revolution, 20th century popular culture and dreams about the future.
The quest to build ever more complex robots has transformed our understanding of the human body, and today robots are becoming increasingly human, learning from mistakes and expressing emotions. In the exhibition, visitors will go behind the scenes to glimpse recent developments from robotics research, exploring how roboticists are building robots that resemble us and interact in human-like ways. The exhibition will end by asking visitors to imagine what a shared future with robots might be like. Robots has been generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with a £100,000 grant from the Collecting Cultures programme.
Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group said: ‘This exhibition explores the uniquely human obsession of recreating ourselves, not through paint or marble but in metal. Seeing robots through the eyes of those who built or gazed in awe at them reveals much about humanity’s hopes, fears and dreams.’
‘The latest in our series of ambitious, blockbuster exhibitions, Robots explores the wondrously rich culture, history and technology of humanoid robotics. Last year we moved gigantic spacecraft from Moscow to the Museum, but this year we will bring a robot back to life.’
Today [May ?, 2016] the Science Museum launched a Kickstarter campaign to rebuild Eric, the UK’s first robot. Originally built in 1928 by Captain Richards & A.H. Reffell, Eric was one of the world’s first robots. Built less than a decade after the word robot was first used, he travelled the globe with his makers and amazed crowds in the UK, US and Europe, before disappearing forever.
[The campaign was successful.]
You can find out more about Eric on the museum’s ‘Eric: The UK’s first robot’ webpage,
Getting back to the exhibition, the Guardian’s Ian Sample has written up a Feb. 7, 2017 preview (Note: Links have been removed),
Eric the robot wowed the crowds. He stood and bowed and answered questions as blue sparks shot from his metallic teeth. The British creation was such a hit he went on tour around the world. When he arrived in New York, in 1929, a theatre nightwatchman was so alarmed he pulled out a gun and shot at him.
The curators at London’s Science Museum hope for a less extreme reaction when they open Robots, their latest exhibition, on Wednesday [Feb. 8, 2016]. The collection of more than 100 objects is a treasure trove of delights: a miniature iron man with moving joints; a robotic swan that enthralled Mark Twain; a tiny metal woman with a wager cup who is propelled by a mechanism hidden up her skirt.
The pieces are striking and must have dazzled in their day. Ben Russell, the lead curator, points out that most people would not have seen a clock when they first clapped eyes on one exhibit, a 16th century automaton of a monk [emphasis mine], who trundled along, moved his lips, and beat his chest in contrition. It was surely mesmerising to the audiences of 1560. “Arthur C Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Russell says. “Well, this is where it all started.”
In every chapter of the 500-year story, robots have held a mirror to human society. Some of the earliest devices brought the Bible to life. One model of Christ on the cross rolls his head and oozes wooden blood from his side as four figures reach up. The mechanisation of faith must have drawn the congregations as much as any sermon.
But faith was not the only focus. Through clockwork animals and human figurines, model makers explored whether humans were simply conscious machines. They brought order to the universe with orreries and astrolabes. The machines became more lighthearted in the enlightened 18th century, when automatons of a flute player, a writer, and a defecating duck all made an appearance. A century later, the style was downright rowdy, with drunken aristocrats, preening dandies and the disturbing life of a sausage from farm to mouth all being recreated as automata.
That reference to an automaton of a monk reminded me of a July 22, 2009 posting where I excerpted a passage (from another blog) about a robot priest and a robot monk,
Since 1993 Robo-Priest has been on call 24-hours a day at Yokohama Central Cemetery. The bearded robot is programmed to perform funerary rites for several Buddhist sects, as well as for Protestants and Catholics. Meanwhile, Robo-Monk chants sutras, beats a religious drum and welcomes the faithful to Hotoku-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kakogawa city, Hyogo Prefecture. More recently, in 2005, a robot dressed in full samurai armour received blessings at a Shinto shrine on the Japanese island of Kyushu. Kiyomori, named after a famous 12th-century military general, prayed for the souls of all robots in the world before walking quietly out of Munakata Shrine.
Sample’s preview takes the reader up to our own age and contemporary robots. And, there is another Guardian article which offering a behind-the-scenes look at the then upcoming exhibition, a Jan. 28, 2016 piece by Jonathan Jones, ,
An android toddler lies on a pallet, its doll-like face staring at the ceiling. On a shelf rests a much more grisly creation that mixes imitation human bones and muscles, with wires instead of arteries and microchips in place of organs. It has no lower body, and a single Cyclopean eye. This store room is an eerie place, then it gets more creepy, as I glimpse behind the anatomical robot a hulking thing staring at me with glowing red eyes. Its plastic skin has been burned off to reveal a metal skeleton with pistons and plates of merciless strength. It is the Terminator, sent back in time by the machines who will rule the future to ensure humanity’s doom.
Backstage at the Science Museum, London, where these real experiments and a full-scale model from the Terminator films are gathered to be installed in the exhibition Robots, it occurs to me that our fascination with mechanical replacements for ourselves is so intense that science struggles to match it. We think of robots as artificial humans that can not only walk and talk but possess digital personalities, even a moral code. In short we accord them agency. Today, the real age of robots is coming, and yet even as these machines promise to transform work or make it obsolete, few possess anything like the charisma of the androids of our dreams and nightmares.
That’s why, although the robotic toddler sleeping in the store room is an impressive piece of tech, my heart leaps in another way at the sight of the Terminator. For this is a bad robot, a scary robot, a robot of remorseless malevolence. It has character, in other words. Its programmed persona (which in later films becomes much more helpful and supportive) is just one of those frightening, funny or touching personalities that science fiction has imagined for robots.
Can the real life – well, real simulated life – robots in the Science Museum’s new exhibition live up to these characters? The most impressively interactive robot in the show will be RoboThespian, who acts as compere for its final gallery displaying the latest advances in robotics. He stands at human height, with a white plastic face and metal arms and legs, and can answer questions about the value of pi and the nature of free will. “I’m a very clever robot,” RoboThespian claims, plausibly, if a little obnoxiously.
Except not quite as clever as all that. A human operator at a computer screen connected with Robothespian by wifi is looking through its video camera eyes and speaking with its digital voice. The result is huge fun – the droid moves in very lifelike ways as it speaks, and its interactions don’t need a live operator as they can be preprogrammed. But a freethinking, free-acting robot with a mind and personality of its own, Robothespian is not.
Our fascination with synthetic humans goes back to the human urge to recreate life itself – to reproduce the mystery of our origins. Artists have aspired to simulate human life since ancient times. The ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, who made a statue so beautiful he fell in love with it and prayed for it to come to life, is a mythic version of Greek artists such as Pheidias and Praxiteles whose statues, with their superb imitation of muscles and movement, seem vividly alive. The sculptures of centaurs carved for the Parthenon in Athens still possess that uncanny lifelike power.
Most of the finest Greek statues were bronze, and mythology tells of metal robots that sound very much like statues come to life, including the bronze giant Talos, who was to become one of cinema’s greatest robotic monsters thanks to the special effects genius of Ray Harryhausen in Jason and the Argonauts.
Renaissance art took the quest to simulate life to new heights, with awed admirers of Michelangelo’s David claiming it even seemed to breathe (as it really does almost appear to when soft daylight casts mobile shadow on superbly sculpted ribs). So it is oddly inevitable that one of the first recorded inventors of robots was Leonardo da Vinci, consummate artist and pioneering engineer. Leonardo apparently made, or at least designed, a robot knight to amuse the court of Milan. It worked with pulleys and was capable of simple movements. Documents of this invention are frustratingly sparse, but there is a reliable eyewitness account of another of Leonardo’s automata. In 1515 he delighted Francois I, king of France, with a robot lion that walked forward towards the monarch, then released a bunch of lilies, the royal flower, from a panel that opened in its back.
One of the most uncanny androids in the Science Museum show is from Japan, a freakily lifelike female robot called Kodomoroid, the world’s first robot newscaster. With her modest downcast gaze and fine artificial complexion, she has the same fetishised femininity you might see in a Manga comic and appears to reflect a specific social construction of gender. Whether you read that as vulnerability or subservience, presumably the idea is to make us feel we are encountering a robot with real personhood. Here is a robot that combines engineering and art just as Da Vinci dreamed – it has the mechanical genius of his knight and the synthetic humanity of his perfect portrait.
All this makes me wish I had plans to visit London, UK in the next few months.