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From mechanical swans to industrial automata: Robots at the London Science Museum

The new Robots exhibition at London's Science Museum begins with an arresting sight: a baby, pinned to a wall, gently grasping at the air around it. As you walk past this automata, though, you see a fat bunch of wires leading out of its back and into a compact engine of motors and actuators — quite literally pulling the strings. This theme of performance (and deception) is present throughout the exhibition, for although robots have always loomed large in our collective imagination, they've never quite been as capable as we would like.

The collection starts with automata of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries: mechanical models powered by springs and clockwork. These include a praying monk and defecating duck, but the centerpiece is magnificent silver swan, built in 1773 and with more than 2,000 moving parts. When wound up and set in motion (which only happens once a day due to the delicacy of the mechanism) the swan performs a graceful 30-second pantomime, catching a tiny silver fish from the glass pond in front of it. Mark Twain, who saw the swan in 1867, wrote: "[He] had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes."

This may sound slightly naive, but humans are always ready to believe in the potency of robots. The next room in the exhibition is dedicated to the 20th century, where the robots loom large, hulking and shiny. There's Maria from Fritz Lang's classic 1927 film Metropolis, which imagined an industrial world of staggering inequality, where humans worked in thrall to machines. There's also Cygan (or "Gygan"), an 8-foot-tall bot from the 1950s which crushed cans for its party trick and had "the strength of a dozen Samsons."

The next two rooms focus more on robots' emotional subtlety and precision, than raw power. It looks at more recent robotic creations including Baxter (a two-armed bot built to assist humans in assembly lines) and Pepper (a bot that can "read" human emotions and is built to work in the service industry, assisting and directing humans). Creepiest of them all, though, is Telenoid, a telepresence bot made of smooth, white plastic that's essentially a torso and little else. It's supposed to be used to talked to loved ones, but sitting by itself, immobile in the middle of bright yellow couch it doesn't look particularly friendly. Is that a lively intelligence I see in its eyes? Not until it's switched on anyway.


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