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.
- The realistic and squirming baby at the start of the exhibition.
- And the bundle of actuators that control it.
- The Silver Swan was built in 1773 and was exhibited to the public for the princely sum of 5 shillings.
- The swan uses thousands of moving parts to dip its neck to the water (made from rotating glass rods) and pick up the middle of these seven silver fish.
- A replica figure of Maria from Fritz Lang's sci-fi classic, Metropolis.
- In the film, Maria takes on the appearance of a human woman, and is used to rouse the workers of the city into rebellion.
- Cygan the robot is second from the left, while the bot on the far right is Eric — originally built in 1928 and with "RUR" emblazoned on its chest (the title of a Czech play from 1920 that coined the term "robot").
- "Alas, poor Yorick."
- This bot was designed to be a receptionist and recognizes when you talk to it, looking in your direction.
- A pair of bipedal robots. Making robots that walk like humans has its advantages, but it's still proving tricky — wheels are still cheaper and offer more stability.
- A closer look at some of the air pressure pumps used in an experimental bipedal robot.
- Nexi the robot can move around, pick up objects, and communicate basic emotions through its oversized face.
- It does rather stare, though.
- More lifelike bots like this, the Kodomoroid from Japan, tend to be limited in functionality. This particular bot can move its arms and read the news.
- The telepresence bot telenoid is meant to be held by the user to increase their empathy toward it.
- Pepper makes a friend.
- Robots like Baxter are being used in factories today alongside humans. It can learn tasks and adapt to its immediate environment.