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Visitor looking at LUCY | © Plastiques Photography / Courtesy of the Science Museum
Visitor looking at LUCY | © Plastiques Photography / Courtesy of the Science Museum
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What Does It Mean to Be Human? The Science Museum Thinks Robots Have the Answer

Picture of Christopher Little
Updated: 10 May 2017

Robots, an exhibition at the Science Museum, London, puts man and machine under the microscope by exploring the ways robots have been humanised over the past 500 years. Not only is the functionality of these marvellous mechanisms observed, but our story of self-perception is told as we see how robots have been positioned in society – leaving us to question what it means to be human.

The exhibition does not merely look at the inner workings of anatomical machines, but explores the reasons for their existence. Showcasing examples from 500 years of robotics, it shows how robots have been consistently humanised to be the helpers, communicators and entertainers of tomorrow.

The mechanical artefacts they display provide insight into the views societies held in a time gone by, while current-day examples provoke discussion for how humans are presently, and wish to in the future, see themselves positioned in a rapidly developing, digital world.

Dream section of the Robots exhibition (2) © Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum

Dream section of the ‘Robots’ exhibition | © Plastiques Photography / Courtesy of the Science Museum

A history of man and machine

‘The human body is a machine that winds up its own sprints, a living image of perpetual motion’ —Julien Offray de La Mettrie, 1749.

As visitors enter the exhibition, the story of robots is told through a vast collection of historical mechanical artefacts which spans five centuries. God’s creation takes centre stage: 16th–century clockwork mechanisms inspired by the heavens and the human body, capture time and the heaven’s movements, while biblical figurines demonstrate how robotics provided an exciting and engaging new medium for religious teachings to be expressed. These moving objects were at the cutting-edge of science, and proved very costly. A modelling of the universe enabled some to feel ‘closer’ to God, and figurines engrossed audiences as they brought the Bible to life, as if by magic.

Build section of the Robots exhibition with ROSA in the foreground. © Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum

Build section of the ‘Robots’ exhibition with ROSA in the foreground | © Plastiques Photography / Courtesy of the Science Museum

From the 17th century, robots appeared more in daily life, with increasingly complex capabilities.  Machines would begin to reproduce human activities, such as drawing, writing and even music-making. This ‘re-creation’ of human vitality, both thrilled and scared people, and as robots were progressively ‘brought to life’, so were the views of anatomists and artists who began drawing similarities between the inner workings of the human body and that of complex components, like clockwork mechanisms.

The exhibition showcases a great range of robots and machine parts from this era, from dancing figurines, early prosthetics to even a silver swan. Viewing these very imaginative, humanised machines, gives a clear sense of the fascination with the nature of humanity that began dominating scientific, philosophical and religious views.

Four prosthetic arms in the Robots exhibition © Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum

Four prosthetic arms in the ‘Robots’ exhibition | © Plastiques Photography / Courtesy of the Science Museum

During the Industrial Revolution, humans began to be viewed as inadequate for certain factory roles, and machines were rolled out of the lab and into the workplace. As technology innovated, so did people’s fascination with them. Robots and concepts grew from dreams of tomorrow and fears for what would become of humanity. These feelings have been popularised in film, literature and even children’s toys, and are highlighted with a colourful display of memorabilia and studio props.

Visitors in the Dream section of the Robots exhibition © Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum

Visitors in the Dream section of the ‘Robots’ exhibition | © Plastiques Photography / Courtesy of the Science Museum

Today’s robots and what they say about the future

‘The rise of powerful AI will be either the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity.’ —Professor Stephen Hawking.

After the 1920s, robotic development was given a ‘boost’ as inventions became battery operated, and post-war advances in technology and increased knowledge of the human body opened new possibilities for creating machines with human capabilities, be it balance, strength, speed and even, artificial intelligence. The second half of the exhibition, demonstrates this new era in robotics, and the very real potential it has to change the face of humanity.

Entrance to the Robots exhibition © Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum

Entrance to the ‘Robots’ exhibition | © Plastiques Photography / Courtesy of the Science Museum

Many developers believe that in order to design robots for people, they must possess human-like functionality, from the body to the senses, in order to learn from, and adapt to surroundings. ‘Social robots’ have already left the lab as consumer products. People can now interact with machines using natural language and gestures, instead of rigid machine codes. And as development continues, it’s possible that smarter, more user-friendly robots will be increasingly common in homes, schools and workplaces. The robots on display mark this new dawn in humanised technology and prompt viewers to question the roles they could play in daily life, whether it’s the way people interact with robots or the consequences they play on humans’ existence.

Visitors in the Imagine section of the Robots exhibition © Plastiques Photography, courtesy of the Science Museum

Visitors in the Imagine section of the ‘Robots’ exhibition | © Plastiques Photography / Courtesy of the Science Museum

Robots at the Science Museum is running until September 3, 2017. Tickets cost £15 with concessions at £13. The whole museum is open 10am–6pm, seven days a week, but you can catch Robots, on Fridays until 10pm (last entry at 9pm).

The Science Museum, Exhibition Road, Kensington, London, SW7 2DD, +44 870 870 4868