Robots, National Museum of Scotland

Museums are places where the past remains, just fragmented, in the present moment, and yet robotics discovers new limits about future possibilities and aspirations. It is blending the past, present and future that makes Robots so enchanting. The exhibition guides you through 500 years of robot history, and leaves you reeling with the technological fantasies of 500 years from now.

As soon as you enter Robots, an uncanny robotic baby with its jerky, cumbersome movements greets you. After that creepy introduction to the exhibition, you have a chance to see a wide range of early attempts at humanoid automation, from 16th century prosthetics to 19th century automatas. As you hear about questions and fears surrounding the clockwork within the human, there is a ticking noise resonating around the room, and a strange whirring sound. You feel like you are in a vast machine, and that the mechanical has somehow infiltrated your body as you yourself become a little paranoid about just how human you really are. It is an unsettling and perfectly engineered start.

From there you move on to arguably the centrepiece – a 2016 replica of ‘Maria,’ the gynoid from Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking film Metropolis (1927). It is a beautiful, haunting standout, bathed in coloured lighting that distorts your perceptions of the mechanical body. It forms part of a larger section of the exhibition that considers robots in popular culture (mostly film), referencing everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Big Hero 6 (2014). The ‘T-800 Endoskeleton Robot,’ used in the filming of Terminator Salvation (2009), also makes for a fascinating look, but it is ‘Maria’ with her semi-human stare that lingers in your mind for the rest of Robots.

The exhibition then focuses on more contemporary examples and throws up serious questions about how they should be viewed in comparison to people. Dexterous limbs, information processing and facial recognition can seem commonplace for the majority of humans, but Robots does fantastically well in making you realise just what complex engineering and technical ability is needed to make robots even attempt to do these things. One of the most powerful examples is ‘Rob’s Open Source Android (ROSA),’ which uses a motion capture video to look directly into your eyes, encouraging you to stare down the pitch black lens and into the technological abyss, failing to find much personhood within the soul of this robotic other. Its peculiarity reminds you, little by little, about our everyday assumptions and theories about what makes us human.

Towards the end of Robots, you meet some creations who will actually talk to you. ‘Robothespian,’ produced in 2016, can recognise when a person is looking at it, say hello, recognise (or rather assume) your gender, and realises that whoever is looking at it most likely has the capability to reply. Again, everyday actions are rendered remarkable by the robot.

The fact that they are so pleasant to you almost makes you feel sorry for them. Most are kept behind glass boxes, unable to move beyond their fixed point in the ground. Wonder gives way to feelings of empathy. All these robots seem to want is human company.

Robots is educational, fascinating, and above all else an invitation. An invitation to consider how robots have played a central role in human projections of tomorrow, imagining new possibilities and transgressing new boundaries. An invitation to explore the very fundamentals of your own humanity as you repeatedly confront things that are not human, and yet in such significant ways not completely non-human either. Most of all, Robots is an invitation to linger joyously in the products of our imagination, intelligence and communication. These robots of the present emphasise their – and our – roles in the not too distant future.

 

Image: James Hanton

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