Science Museum Exhibit: Robotic Delights or Disappointments?

By Teresa Heffernan

The tagline at the 2017 Robot Exhibit at the Science Museum in London reads “the 500-year quest to make machines human.” The show has attracted a great deal of media attention—The Guardian’s review announced: “Science Museum’s robotic delights hold a mirror to human society” while The Telegraph preview reads “A truly mind-bending array of humanoid imagery ” and the Londonist insists “You HAVE TO SEE Robots At The Science Museum.”[i]

But the reviews by the public, who paid the 15 GBP entrance fee, have been less than enthusiastic—with lots of grumbling about all the robots that were static and inactive. This is a typical complaint on TripAdvisor: “We stood in front of the robot thespian, looking like idiots as we assumed he could engage with us and asked him questions. In fact, he just jiggles about a bit and repeats random speeches. A tape recorder and an electric motor attached to a shop mannequin could easily create a similar effect.”[ii]  So what accounts for this discrepancy in the reviews?

The expectation that robots be life-like and interactive has been fueled by fiction and film.  Carefully curated and edited, the video clips in the media reviews, complete with soundtracks, promise an evocative spectacle: the robots seem to perform autonomously as if they exist in a state of constant life-like motion. But this digital magic jars with the actual experience of attending the show, which exposes all the limits of machines–from expensive energy costs to bugs to programming glitches to mechanical problems to wires—the robots suffer the same issues that plague most modern technology, leaving its audiences underwhelmed.

The first rooms of the exhibit are dark but get progressively lighter as you move through the show till you get to the lab-like lighting of the present, suggesting the progress from mysticism to science. This story of robots begins in the sixteenth-century and its fascination with mechanical clocks and anatomical models and continues through the industrial revolution with its factory machines and ends with the current industry of social robots.  “Marvel, Obey, Dream, Build, Imagine” the exhibit instructs its viewers.  The religious age with its “magical” screaming Satan and bleeding Jesus automatons commissioned by the Catholic Church to inspire awe and deference amongst its followers eventually gives way to the modern age with Kodomoroid and Pepper, social robots that vow to transform our lives and become our partners.

But have we really always been dreaming about “recreating ourselves as machines” as the exhibit suggests?  The term robot was first applied to artificial people in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. and was derived from the Slavic term robota (forced laborer) that referred to peasants enslaved under the feudal system in 19th century Europe; the term was used in the play to discuss the mechanization of humans under factory capitalism.  Robots were born in fiction but the anachronistic use of the term in this show begs the question about why begin with machines as opposed to other fantastical scenes of creating life: Prometheus’s modeling of man from clay or God’s creation of Eve from a rib or Pygmalion’s female statue that is brought to life by a wish? I am always suspicious of linear historical timelines that suggest the inevitability of the current market for robots.

Then again, narrating robots as originating in the context of priests, power, showmanship and magic makes sense given the contemporary business of AI and robotics, with its promises of miracles. Perhaps it is better to understand robotics and AI as the direct legacy of religion given the captains of these industries and their claims of god-like powers. When asked about the future of AI, Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, who heads a team developing machine intelligence and who insists we will all live forever, announced in IEEE Spectrum’s June 2017 issue: “I believe computers will match and then quickly exceed human capabilities in the areas where humans are still superior today by 2029.”[iii]  I suspect visitors to the robot show will rightly remain skeptical of this claim.

[i] See: “Science Museum’s robotic delights hold a mirror to human society“; “A truly mind-bending array of humanoid imagery – Robots, Science Museum“; “You HAVE TO SEE Robots At The Science Museum.”

[ii] See reviews on TripAdvisor: “Just A Review of the Robots Exhibition

[iii]  “Human-Level AI Is Right Around the Corner—or Hundreds of Years Away

(Feature image source: “Hand-coloured photograph (1964) of the earliest known illustration of a clock, from ‘L’Horloge da Sapience (The Clock of Wisdom), 1406.” Science Museum Group Collection)

  • plhollingsworth

    Many of the conceptions of robots “embody” a longing for a new servant class: someone to lighten the load of housework, to take on the more dangerous or tedious of jobs on production lines, or to serve as sexual objects. It is as though we cannot stop thinking in terms of hierarchy; even those of us lowest on the social scale seem to need something even lower. By imbuing them with human traits we can fulfill that need. If, instead, they were just machines, we couldn’t pretend that they belonged there with (below) us.

  • Mark

    I’ve read the reviews of the exhibition, and am heading to London this weekend to see it. This blog entry is a useful antidote to the hype, perhaps. But you don’t mention the potential pleasure of seeing automata in the ‘flesh’, as it were, that we usually only see photographs of in books, or descriptions in historical texts. Was there really no sense of wonder at seeing such intricate machines, even if they weren’t working correctly? Or does it emphasize the usual way we frame such machines, accentuating the ‘uncanny’ nature of machines that are less-than lifelike? Perhaps there’s nothing sadder than an intricate machine that just doesn’t work as it should!

    1. teresaheffernan1

      Will be curious to hear what you think Mark. Perhaps I am just a bit jaded having spent quite a bit of time around robots and geminoids. I still think automota–like Cox and Merlin’s Silver Swan–are remarkable for their artistry and craftsmanship…but it wasn’t trying to be like a “real” swan (the swan was not there when I went). The emphasis on contemporary robots in the exhibit being “life-like” seems to do a disservice to both life and the imagination. The catalogue is in my view more interesting that the exhibit curation…a number of essays, like the one on ancient and medieval automata, are very smart. Have a good trip.

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