A display of mechanical marvels opens at the Science Museum and leaves the viewer with mixed emotions about the blurring boundary between man and machine.
Ever since mankind has been able to ask questions, we have asked, what is it that makes us, us. A theological debate about the nature of man that started to unravel as man unraveled mankind by reducing the human body into a collection of engines held together by sinews and muscles.
If mankind is but a machine, can the machine be replicated by mankind?
For centuries, scientists and theologians have grappled with that conundrum as science slowly started to supplant God as creator, slowly inching towards the creation of the next species to dominate the planet — the robots.
The latest blockbuster exhibition at the Science Museum looks not to the future, but to the surprisingly long past of mankind’s attempts to replicate in metal what God created in flesh.
Surprisingly, one of the earliest automatons was of a religious scene, of Jesus on the cross, who would on occasions bleed blood and roll his head in pain.
Many of the earliest machines made by man were clocks, and with the advances in clockmaking, it’s not totally surprising that such skills would later move from timekeeping to entertainment.
With the automaton, man was already posing questions about what it is that makes man unique. Are we just a complex collection of gears and wheels with a controlling mind, or is there a soul that makes man different from machine.
From mechanical turks to silver swans, the boundaries between what man can make and what man can animate continued to arouse as much wonder as controversy.
The ability of mankind to create a replacement to do its bidding varies in culture from mechanical devices that obey, but more often rebel against the creator, to organic machines, such as Dr Frankenstein’s creation, sometimes thought to have been called Adam.
Such is the wariness of man becoming God, that a scene from the 1931 Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie, where the doctor cries out that now he knows what it is to be a God, while referring to his creation as Adam was enough to have the scene cut by censors for scandalizing society.
However, it wasn’t until the era of computing that genuinely autonomous machines could start to evolve from their dumb ancestors.
One of the earliest being a turtle shaped device that could roam a room and then when its batteries ran low, return for recharging. At last a machine with a mind of its own, and however rudimentary, the revolution had begun.
Some of the biggest leaps forward in robotics is however totally overlooked in this exhibition – the factory robot. These giant machines which have moved so effortlessly into factory and warehouse are the hidden machines of our modern world.
We want to think about humanoid robots, not factory robots. Factory robots look like clever machines, but humanoid robots look like dumb, but getting clever, humans. But just how clever is too clever?
It’s the humanoid form that has both taxed the scientists the most — walking is surprisingly difficult — but also posed the greatest questions about when a robot becomes too human for comfort.
Most early representations of thinking machines often showed them as little more than tanks on legs, with weapons to match. When Robbie the Robot (who is scandalously absent from this exhibition) appeared in Forbidden Planet, he created his own TV series and revolutionised how we saw the potential for robots.
Not warlike machines, but domestic servants. At a time of society when many could still remember a life lived with servants in the house, this was a reassuring sign that modern inventions would reassert the old order.
Of course, machines never quite lived up to the Hollywood hype, but it was the appearance of a very humanoid robot that was to see another change in our vision of the future.
The Terminator had arrived — and here one of the later models is on display, in very selfie-friendly pose. Not quite sure what robots will ever make of selfies, which is a very human obsession.
While Hollywood has obsessed about killing machines, Japan has an almost equal level of obsession with helping machines.
A country with a shrinking, and aging population faces a dilemma about who builds the world of the future, and who cares for the elderly of the future.
It’s possibly why a country obsessed with the cute has also focused on machines that are soft, cute, clean, humanoid.
The exhibition finishes with a “zoo” of such robots, put on display in glass cages for humans to peer and and watch as they go about their curious activities in artificial environments.
We wander around the robot zoo laughing and gazing in wonder at the robots within, and maybe feel a little worried. When will the roles reverse. When will the humans, having ceded so much of what we need to function in our lives to our robot servants, then come to realise that we have become the exhibits, cared for by human-keepers in our own domestic zoos?
Will we be the dumb robots controlled by superior beings?
The exhibition is open at the Science Museum until 3rd September.
Entry is £15, and the exhibition will be open late to 10pm every Friday.