Tag Archives: Arthur C. Clarke

500-year history of robots exhibition at London’s (UK) Science Museum

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.

Here’s a link to the Science Museum’s ‘Robots’ exhibition webspace and a link to a Guardian ‘Robots’ photo essay.

All this makes me wish I had plans to visit London, UK in the next few months.

The importance of science fiction for the future

I started this post in March (2013) but haven’t had time till now (May 7, 2013) to flesh it out. It was a Mar. 28, 2013 posting by Jessica Bland and Lydia Nicholas for the UK Guardian science blogs which inspired me (Note: Links have been removed),

Science fiction and real-world innovation have always fed off each other. The history of the electronic book shows us things are more complicated than fiction predicting fact [.]

Imagine a new future. No, not that tired old vision of hoverboards and robot butlers: something really new and truly strange. It’s hard. It’s harder still to invent the new things that will fill this entirely new world. New ideas that do not fit or that come from unfamiliar places are often ignored. Hedy Lemarr [a major movie sex symbol in her day] and George Antheil’s [musician] frequency-hopping patent was ignored for 20 years because the US Navy could not believe that Hollywood artists could invent a method of secure communication. Many of Nikola Tesla’s inventions and his passionate belief in the importance of renewable energy were ignored by a world that could not imagine a need for them.

Stories open our eyes to the opportunities and hazards of new technologies. By articulating our fears and desires for the future, stories help shape what is to come – informing public debate, influencing regulation and inspiring inventors. And this makes it important that we do not just listen to the loudest voices.

Of course it isn’t as simple as mining mountains of pulp sci-fi for the schematics of the next rocket or the algorithms of the next Google. Arthur C. Clarke, often attributed with the invention of the communication satellite, firmly believed that these satellites would require crews. The pervasive connectivity that defines our world today would never have existed if every satellite needed to be manned.

The Guardian posting was occasioned by the publication of two research papers produced for NESTA. It’s an organization which is not similar to any in Canada or the US (as far as I know). Here’s a little more about NESTA from their FAQs page,

Nesta is an independent charity with a mission to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life. We do this by providing investments and grants and mobilising research, networks and skills.

Nesta backs innovation to help bring great ideas to life. We do this by providing investments and grants and mobilising research, networks and skills.

Nesta receives funds from The Nesta Trust, which received the National Lottery endowment from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

The interest from this endowment is used to fund our activities. These activities must be used to promote the charitable objects of both the Nesta Trust and the Nesta charity. We also use the returns from Nesta investments, and income from working in partnership with others, to fund our work.

We don’t receive any ongoing general government funds to support our work.

On 1st April 2012 Nesta ceased being a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) and became a charity (charity number 1144091).

We maintain our mission to carry out research into innovation and to further education, science, technology, the arts, public services, the voluntary sector and enterprise in various areas by encouraging and supporting innovation.

Nesta’s objectives are now set out in our ‘charitable objects’ which can be viewed here.

Nesta continues to operate at no cost to the Government or the taxpayer using return from the Nesta Trust.

In any event, NESTA commissioned two papers:

Imagining technology
Jon Turney
Nesta Working Paper 13/06
Issued: March 2013

Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science fiction and Innovation
Caroline Bassett, Ed Steinmueller, Georgina Voss
Nesta Working Paper 13/07
Issued: March 2013

For anyone who does not have time to read the NESTA papers, the Guardian’s post by Bland and Nicholas provides a good overview of the thinking which links science fiction with real innovation.

Around the same time I stumbled across the Bland/Nicholas post I also stumbled on a science fiction conference that is regularly held at the University of California Riverside.

The Eaton Science Fiction Conference was held Apr. 11 – 14, 2013 and the theme was “Science Fiction Media. It’s a little late for this year but perhaps you want to start planning for next year.  Here’s the Eaton Science Fiction Conference website. For those who’d like to get a feel for this conference, here’s a little more from the Mar. 27, 2013 news release by Bettye Miller,

… the 2013 conference will be largest in the 34-year history of the conference, said Melissa Conway, head of Special Collections and Archives of the UCR Libraries and conference co-organizer. It also is the first time the UCR Libraries and College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences have partnered with the Science Fiction Research Association, the largest and most prestigious scholarly organization in the field, to present the event.

Among the science fiction writers who will be presenting on different panels are: Larry Niven, author of “Ringworld” and a five-time winner of the Hugo Award and a Nebula; Gregory Benford, astrophysicist and winner of a Nebula Award and a United Nations Medal in Literature; David Brin, astrophysicist and two-time winner of the Hugo Award; Audre Bormanis, writer/producer for “Star Trek: Enterprise,” “Threshold,” “Eleventh Hour,” “Legend of the Seeker” and “Tron: Uprising”; Kevin Grazier, science adviser for “Battlestar Galactica,” “Defiance,” “Eureka” and “Falling Skies”; and James Gunn, winner of a Hugo Award and the 2007 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master, presented for lifetime achievement as a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

As for the impetus for this conference in Riverside, California, from the news release,

UCR is the home of the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy, the largest publicly accessible collection of its kind in the world. The collection embraces every branch of science fiction, fantasy, horror and utopian/dystopian fiction.

The collection, which attracts scholars from around the world, holds more than 300,000 items including English-language science fiction, fantasy and horror published in the 20th century and a wide range of works in Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, German, and a dozen other languages; fanzines; comic books; anime; manga; science fiction films and television series; shooting scripts; archives of science fiction writers; and science fiction collectibles and memorabilia.

In one of those odd coincidences we all experience from time to time, Ray Harryhausen, creator of a type of stop-motion model animation known as Dynamation and well loved for his work in special effects and who was recognized with a life time achievement at the 2013 conference, died today (May 7, 2013; Wikipedia essay).

The item which moved me to publish today (May 7, 2013), Can Science Fiction Writers Inspire The World To Save Itself?, by Ariel Schwartz concerns the Hieroglyph project at Arizona State University,

Humanity’s lack of a positive vision for the future can be blamed in part on an engineering culture that’s more focused on incrementalism (and VC funding) than big ideas. But maybe science fiction writers should share some of the blame. That’s the idea that came out of a conversation in 2011 between science fiction author Neal Stephenson and Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University.

If science fiction inspires scientists and engineers to create new things–Stephenson believes it can–then more visionary, realistic sci-fi stories can help create a better future. Hence the Hieroglyph experiment, launched this month as a collaborative website for researchers and writers. Many of the stories created on the platform will go into a HarperCollins anthology of fiction and non-fiction, set to be published in 2014.

Here’s more about the Hieroglyph project from the About page,

Inspiration is a small but essential part of innovation, and science fiction stories have been a seminal source of inspiration for innovators over many decades. In his article entitled “Innovation Starvation,” Neal Stephenson calls for a return to inspiration in contemporary science fiction. That call resonated with so many and so deeply that Project Hieroglyph was born shortly thereafter.

The name of Project Hieroglyph comes from the notion that certain iconic inventions in science fiction stories serve as modern “hieroglyphs” – Arthur Clarke’s communications satellite, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ship that lands on its fins, Issac Asimov’s robot, and so on. Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research described hieroglyphs as simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

While the mission of Project Hieroglyph begins with creative inspiration, our hope is that many of us will be genuinely inspired towards realization.

This project is an initiative of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and Imagination.

It’s great seeing this confluence of thinking about science fiction, innovation, and science. I’m pretty sure we knew this in the 19th century (and probably before that too) and I just hope we don’t forget it again.

Magic, science, and neuro

This latest news from the University of Leicester brings to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s famous (and overused) quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” From the Mar. 12, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

A magician is using his knowledge of magic theory and practice to investigate the brain’s powers of observation.

Hugo Caffaratti, engineer and semi-professional magician from Barcelona, Spain, has embarked on a PhD with the University of Leicester’s Centre for Systems Neuroscience.

Hugo has 12 years of experience working with magic — specialising in card tricks — and is a member of the Spanish Society of Illusionism (SEI-ACAI).

The engineer also has a longstanding interest in neuroscience and bioengineering, having taken a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering at University of Barcelona.

He hopes to combine his two interests in his PhD thesis project, which covers a new field of Cognitive Neuroscience:Neuro-Magic.

The University of Leicester Mar. 11, 2013 press release, which originated the news item, goes on to reveal that Caffaratti’s study is about observation and choice,

As part of his work, he will investigate how our brains perceive what actually happens before our eyes – and how our attention can be drawn away from important details.

He also plans to study “forced choice” – a tool often used by magicians where we are fooled into thinking we have made a free choice.

Among other experiments, Hugo will ask participants to watch videos of card trick performances, while sitting in front of an eye-tracker device.

This will allow him to monitor where our attention is focused during illusions – and how our brain can be deceived when our eyes miss the whole picture.

Hugo said: “I have always been interested in the study of the brain. It is amazing to be involved in the process of combining the disciplines of neuroscience and magic.

“I am really interested in the fields of decision making and forced-choice. It is incredible that many times a day we make a decision and feel free. We do not realise that we have been forced to make that decision.

“I am constructing an experiment to study what happens when we make forced decisions – to try and find the reasons for it. I am thinking about which kinds of tricks I know could be useful to give more insights about brain function.”

He will work under the tutelage of Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga, director of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience.

I am intrigued by Quian Quiroga’s perspective on this work,

Professor Rodrigo Quian Quiroga said: “I am very interested in connections between science and the arts. Last year, for example, we organized an art and science exhibition as a result of a 1-year rotation in my lab of visual artist Mariano Molina. Hugo’s PhD will look at decision-making and attention – and although he is doing his first steps in neuroscience, I think he already has a lot of expertise in this area based on his training as a magician.

“Magic theory has thousands of years of experience. Magicians have been answering similar questions that we have in the lab, and they have an intuitive knowledge of how the mind works. Hugo will likely bring a fresh new view on how to address questions we deal with in neuroscience.”

Happily, Caffaratti plans to continue as a magician while he studies,

Hugo is also keen to carry on with his work in magic while studying for his PhD, and is hoping to perform in bars in Leicester while staying here.

He has also applied for membership with The Magic Circle – a prestigious magic society of London. He will have to sit exams to prove his magical mettle in order to join the exclusive club.

Hopefully one of these days I’ll get to Leicester and have a chance to Caffaratti in action at a bar. Perhaps I’ll be able to recognize him from this image,

L-R: Professor Quian Quiroga, Director of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience, with PhD student and semi-professional magician Hugo Caffaratti. [downloaded from http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/press-releases/2013/march/neuro-magic-magician-uses-magic-tricks-to-study-the-brain2019s-powers-of-perception-and-memory]

L-R: Professor Quian Quiroga, Director of the Centre for Systems Neuroscience, with PhD student and semi-professional magician Hugo Caffaratti. [downloaded from http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/press-releases/2013/march/neuro-magic-magician-uses-magic-tricks-to-study-the-brain2019s-powers-of-perception-and-memory]

For anyone who’s intrigued by Clarke’s quote and its overuse, there’s a good May 9, 2011 essay by Kyle Munkittrick about the movie Thor, magic, and science on the Science not Fiction Discover magazine blog,

If you haven’t seen it yet, Thor is a ridiculous and entertaining superhero spectacle. All the leads did a great job, particularly Hopkins as Odin. If you can take a man seriously when he’s standing on a rainbow bridge wearing a gold-plate eyepatch, he’s doing something right. Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Asgard was visually overwhelming, but weirdly believable.

The reason? Branagh leans heavily on the magi-tech rule of Arthur C. Clarke, which Natalie Portman’s character quotes in the film, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So what is the difference between really-really advanced technology and actual magic? Sean Carroll, who did some science advising for the film, clears the idea up a bit: …

… Clarke’s rule of magical tech helps create some of that consistency. I both love and loathe Clarke for that statement. Love because it strikes at the heart of what technology is: a way for humans to do things previously believed not just implausible, but impossible. Loathe because it creates an infinite caveat for lazy authors and screenwriters.

So there you have it: two approaches to science and magic.