Robots are often mistrusted and misunderstood. They’re feared for taking jobs and demonised because of their destructive roles in sci-fi movies such as Robocop and Terminator. Until 2 December 2018 the story of their development, over the past 500 years, will be told in the exhibition Robots — Then and Now at Newcastle’s Life Science Centre.
I headed to the Life Science Centre leaving the house in a sorry state. We’re approaching the end of the 21st century’s second decade yet personal robots that can clean and take care of mundane household chores still, unfortunately, aren’t commonplace. Didn’t boffins take to television, promising that everyone would have one by the year 2000 on programmes such as Tomorrow’s World?
Maybe it’s the humans that oversold the likely availability of the now not so new technology that I should have been miffed with, rather than robots?
Admittedly, they intermittently induced fear when I was a lad. Who hasn’t sought protection behind a sofa — presumably they are robot- and monster-proof? — while metallic-bodied Cybermen went after Doctor Who? Surely every imaginative teenager has started at least one school day with eyes redder than those of an evil cyborg thanks to a night contemplating the widespread death and destruction that might be wreaked by weapon-wielding, robots obediently exterminating on the orders of some megalomaniac or mad scientist?
Visiting Robots — Then and Now
The exhibition Robots — Then and Now was developed by London’s Science Museum and opened in Newcastle on 26 May. It encompasses artefacts that are centuries old and robots developed in labs and used in factories or for medical purposes. The items on show include the T-800 Endoskeleton, a prop used during the filming of Terminator Salvation during 2009.
In our age of omnipresent technology and household machines, I’d never previously contemplated that clocks and astronomical models would have wowed people centuries ago and might be regarded as distant precursors of robots. Unsettled by the lifelike gurgling of a scrunch-faced, nappy-wearing baby figure at the very entrance to Robots — Then and Now, I moved straight towards them, admiring their inscriptions and details of the metalwork.
Apparently modelling God’s universe was regarded as a way of bringing people closer to Him. In the pre-digital age, orreries — mechanical models of the solar system — were used rather than apps to calculate the positions of planets.
The technology led to the construction of automatons, clockwork devices that could mimic the movement of lifeforms. The exhibition includes an articulated mannequin from the late-16th century and explains how the 18th-century was the golden age of hand-crafted automatons. A video shows the smooth movement of the fish-catching silver swan that is displayed at The Bowes Museum in County Durham.
Just as robots operating in factories might be regarded by some as taking employment from humans, looms transformed work routines and production during the Industrial Revolution. One of the 700,000 looms built in Blackburn by the British Northrop Loom Company is displayed. The exhibition goes on to trace the evolution of technologies that enabled Human Support Robots to be trialled in patient care, in Japan, in 2015.
Videos and hi-tech displays trace the development of human-like movement of robots. The exhibits include ECCE1/CRONOS — a complex looking mass of wires and body-shaped parts that was assembled in Europe between 2005 and 2009 with the objective of exploring whether a robot could learn to control its own movements — and hands built to replicate human dexterity.
The first use of ‘robot’
The term ‘robot’ was not used until 1920, when playwright Karel Čapek employed it in his work Rossum’s Universal Robots. It comes from the Czech word ‘robota’ for ‘forced labour’.
Just seven years later Maria, one of the world’s most famous fictional robots, featured in Metropolis, the Fritz Lang film. Several of the metallic ‘machine people’ of the early- and mid-20th century are displayed in Robots — Then and Now. The smooth finish and sleek form of Cygan, an Italian robot with 13 electric motors dating from 1957, displayed next a remake of Eric — a big-eared British robot originally dating from 1928 with a dented chest — reminded me of a Ferrari standing next to an old banger.
For me the most unsettling of the displays, other than the repulsive baby at the entrance to the exhibition, was Kodomoroid, a robot with silicone skin, individually cast teeth and realistic hair. Kodomoroid was originally used to study people’s reactions to human-like androids. Harry, a trumpet-playing robot, simply made me laugh.
Some of the robots that are displayed in glass cases in the final room of the exhibition look uncannily similar to Johnny 5, the mechanical star of the Short Circuit, the film from 1986. As robotics and Artificial Intelligence evolve, maybe we’ll all end up with some future generation of Robina (whose name is derived from ‘robot as intelligent assistant’), a robot developed by the Toyota Motor Corporation in 2007?
Maybe that will be possible by 2050? Or will robots control the planet by then? When it comes to robots and robotics, there’s a fine line between sci-fi and science. Robots — Then and Now helps put that in perspective.
The Life Science Centre is at Times Square in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a five-minute walk from Newcastle Central Station. Day tickets for adults, including entry to the exhibition, cost £15. Family tickets are priced at £36.
See the NewcastleGateshead website for more ideas about things to do and see while visiting Tyneside. You could also search Go Eat Do and read about climbing Grey’s Monument and walking in Newcastle and neighbouring Gateshead.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, lives in the north-east of England and enjoys visiting exhibitions and museums. He is available for freelance commissions and can be contacted via this website.
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