Much to learn about ourselves

Dr Kate Devlin visits 'Robots' at the Science Museum.

The new Robots exhibition at the Science Museum in London charts 500 years of our desire to build our artificial equivalents. Robots are a very specific form of artificial intelligence in that they are embodied – and the focus here is the human version of these machines. Although the field of robotics only came to fruition in the 20th century, the history is much, much older, stretching back to Classical myth and later manifesting itself in the automata of the medieval period. The exhibition charts this development with beautiful, captivating examples: the clockwork monk, the silver swan, the mechanical turk – right through to some of the most advanced humanoid robots we have today.

Robots is a fascinating and informative immersion into the robotic landscape but the truly compelling part of this exhibition is the exploration of what it means to be human. It starts with birth. On entering the gallery, the first exhibit encountered is an incredibly convincing animatronic baby, upright against a wall and enshrined in light, slowly moving its limbs. It’s an eerie reminder of the theory of the uncanny valley – the unsettling gap where we are drawn to, and yet repulsed by, something that looks like us, but is not us.

The narrative of Robots is split into five sections by date: Marvel (1570-1800), Obey (1800-1920), Dream (1920-2009), Build (1940-present), and Imagine (2000 and into the future). At each stage, the story is framed in terms of our understandings of ourselves. Marvel, for example, explores the 16th century notions of clockwork in the movement of the heavens and the movement of the body. In Obey, the idea of the human worker as automaton is mirrored in the mechanisation of factory work. Dream draws together science and science fiction, examining our hope and fears around our mechanical counterparts. Build charts the cybernetic age and the work of the past 75 years that has brought us to this point. Lastly, Dream looks at the natural human-robot interaction we can expect in the future and speculates on what our relationships with these machines might be.

For me, it is Build that is the richest of all of these in terms of learning more about ourselves. This is where the research into robotics and artificial intelligence has branched out into psychology and philosophy, leading to the rise of cognitive science. Here the emphasis is on the importance of embodied cognition and the need to have a physical body in order to learn about the world. It’s the difficulty in building a machine with human abilities that highlights so clearly the fundamental gaps in knowledge about how we ourselves think and act. By showing the robots of recent years in terms of their capabilities and limitations, it’s a wonderful insight into how much there is to learn about our own cognition before we attempt to construct an artificial alternative. Robots may dominate the media but they are still a long way from dominating the world.

-       Dr Kate Devlin is in the Department of Computing, Goldsmiths, University of London.

-       Robots is on at the Science Museum in London until 3 September



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