‘A truly mind-bending array of humanoid imagery’ – The Daily Telegraph
‘A treasure trove of robotic delights’ – The Guardian
‘A bold and compelling show’ – The Times
“From the dawn of mechanised human forms to cutting-edge technology fresh from the lab, Robots reveals the astonishing 500-year quest to make machines human.
Focusing on why they exist rather than on how they work, our blockbuster exhibition explores the ways robots mirror humanity and the insights they offer into our ambitions, desires and position in a rapidly changing world.
Robots takes you on an incredible journey spanning five centuries, illustrated with robotic artefacts from around the globe from a 16th century mechanised monk to some of film’s most iconic robotic creations and the very latest humanoids: “Kodomoroid – Communication Android”
The word ‘robot’ originated in a play called ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ (R.U.R/Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti), written in 1920 by Czech playwright Karel Čapek.
In Czech, ‘robota’ means ‘labour’ or ‘drudgery’.
‘Robot’ was first applied as a term for artificial automata in a 1920 play “R.U.R.” by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek.
However, Josef Čapek was named by his brother Karel as the true inventor of the term robot.
The word itself was not new, having been in Slavic languages as robota (forced laborer), a term which classified those peasants obligated to compulsory service under the feudal system widespread in 19th century Europe.
Čapek’s fictional story postulated the technological creation of artificial human bodies without souls, and the old theme of the feudal robota class eloquently fit the imagination of a new class of manufactured, artificial workers.
‘<Čapek’s strong>Robots’ were artificial people who did work for humans happily at first but who later rebelled and caused the extinction of the human race.
The ‘Robots’ described in the play were creatures that could be mistaken for humans rather than machines (androids):
‘HELENA: (sits) Where are you from?
SULLA: From here, the factory
HELENA: Oh, you were born here.
SULLA: Yes I was made here.
HELENA: (startled) What?
DOMIN: (laughing) Sulla isn’t a person, Miss Glory, she’s a robot‘.
A robot (also called a droid) is a machine —especially one programmable by a computer— capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.
Robots can be guided by an external control device or the control may be embedded within. Robots may be constructed to take on human form but most robots are machines designed to perform a task with no regard to how they look.
Robots can be autonomous or semi-autonomous and range from humanoids such as Honda’s Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO) and TOSY’s TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot (TOPIO) to industrial robots, medical operating robots, patient assist robots, dog therapy robots, collectively programmed swarm robots, UAV drones such as General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, and even microscopic nano robots.
By mimicking a lifelike appearance or automating movements, a robot may convey a sense of intelligence or thought of its own. Autonomous Things are expected to proliferate in the coming decade, with home robotics and the autonomous car as some of the main drivers.
Robots have replaced humans in performing repetitive and dangerous tasks which humans prefer not to do, or are unable to do because of size limitations, or which take place in extreme environments such as outer space or the bottom of the sea.
There are concerns about the increasing use of robots and their role in society. Robots are blamed for rising unemployment as they replace workers in increasing numbers of functions.
The use of robots in military combat raises ethical concerns. The possibilities of robot autonomy and potential repercussions have been addressed in fiction and may be a realistic concern in the future.
Robots: 500 years in the making
Science Fiction and Robots
As toys, characters in books, plays, comics, and films, robots have represented our hopes and fears for what the future might hold for over a century.
Robots in these different media have played a powerful role shaping our expectations of what robots should look like.
Since the early 1900s, writers and filmmakers have used robots to represent our growing uncertainty about humanity’s place in the world, and our fears of being displaced by machines—or of even turning into them.
The industrial age gave rise to machines that started to take on factory jobs previously done by people.
The working day of the machines’ slaves would have been tightly regimented, and set at a speed determined by the machines.
Workers became responsible for keeping the machines running. People began to feel that they were being replaced by machines, or even becoming machines themselves. This became a common theme in popular culture, giving rise to some of the first robot characters.
As a human transformed into a machine, the Tin Woodman (Tin Man) from L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ is often believed to symbolise the dehumanization and hopelessness felt by industrial workers in the period the book was written.
L. Frank Baum went on to create an entirely mechanical character called ‘Tik-Tok’ in his 1907 book ‘Ozma of Oz’. Tik-Tok is often cited as one of the very first ‘robots’ (in all but name) in literature.
“….[the Tin Man] is as alive as we are, ‘cause he was born a real man, and got his tin body a little at a time—first a leg and then a finger and then an ear——for the reason that he had so many accidents with his ax. […]This copper man [Tik Tok] is not alive at all!”
‘Maria’ was the first robot character to feature in a blockbuster film—Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’, 1927.
In the plot, an inventor builds the robot to replace the real human character of Maria.
The robot goes on to ruin the real Maria’s reputation, starting an uprising and causing chaos.
Later, Maria’s design strongly influenced the look of Star Wars droid ‘C-3P0’.
The first robot actually made in Britain was built in 1928. The robot, named Eric, was constructed to take the place of the Duke of York when he was unable to attend the opening of an exhibition in London.
Eric’s makers seemed to have been influenced by Rossum’s Universal Robots——Eric has the letters ‘R.U.R’ emblazoned on its chest.
Hopes for a brighter future
Of course, not all robots were bad. In the 1950s and 60s, the world was recovering from war. Times were good, industries were booming, and people were more affluent than ever.
Toy robots provided the classic image of a robot in popular culture. These were hugely popular, and played to themes of new technologies, space exploration and a future beyond earth that captured the public’s imagination at the time.
Some robots scaled up, from toy-scale to full size.
‘George’ was built in 1949 by Tony Sale using scrap metal from a grounded WW2 plane. The robot was widely praised by newspaper reporters and, described as a model for the domestic robot of the future.
‘Cygan’ (sometimes called Gygan) was built in 1957 to open an exhibition in Italy by Dr Piero Fiorito, where it was described as ‘l’uomo elettrionico del futouro’ (the electronic man of the future).
Cygan later came to London, where the press speculated that ‘there may yet well be a time when robots like Gygan are accepted as part of our everyday life, automotons as gentle as lambs for chores like babysitting, and the strength of a dozen Samsons for more ominous purposes.’
Characters such as Astroboy, C-3P0 in Star Wars, or Baymax from Big Hero 6, all help us imagine a world where robots are not the destroyers of humanity, but its helpers, companions, and perhaps even friends.”