Auld Reekie robots

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Anyone who read my previous blog-post won’t be surprised to hear that my opinion of humanity is not terribly high at the moment.  So here’s a post that’s about the opposite of humanity.  It’s about artificial, mechanical and / or synthetic humanity rather than the flesh-and-blood variety.  Robots, in other words.

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Robots is the name of an exhibition that’s been in progress at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  A few weeks ago I got a chance to visit it.  Containing more than 100 exhibits, it tells the story of, to quote the blurb, ‘our 500-year quest to make machines human’ and it ranges ‘from early mechanised human forms to today’s cutting-edge technology.’  The exhibition runs until May 5th which, come to think of it, is today.  So if you’re in the Edinburgh area, haven’t seen it yet but fancy giving it a try, you’d better grab your coat and hat and run to the museum… now!

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The first sections of the exhibition chart the progress made by human science and technology towards the creation of robots prior to the 20th century.  This progress includes automatons, which were ‘mass-produced for the first time’ during the Industrial Revolution and ‘were not toys, but reflected their owners’ prosperity and fascination with exotic places.’  Among the automatons on display are a mechanical monkey, a mechanical bird in a cage and an eye-rolling, cigar-puffing human face that once adorned the wall of a tobacconist’s.  They’re charming, but I was disappointed that there weren’t more items like these on show.

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There’s also a section about the development of clockwork and it features some antiquated devices running on elaborate systems of springs and gearwheels.  These include a huge, multicoloured time-keeping dial with Roman numerals, the months and the signs of the zodiac on it; an orrery with long, straight, horizontal ‘branches’ and vertical ‘twigs’ supporting various planets and moons; and another orrery consisting of metal balls (the sun, earth, moon) and metal rings (their orbits).  Again, I wished the exhibition had had more space to exhibit more of these because I found them fascinating.

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After walking past some factory machines that helped to make the Industrial Revolution so revolutionary, you arrive at a section devoted to robots of the cinema screen, printed page and comic strip.  No doubt contrary to many visitors’ expectations, this section is quite brief.  There are some display cases with movie posters, pictures, books and toys and two life-sized representations of robots from two classic films, and that’s it.  The life-sized representations are of the utterly iconic Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), who stands in the middle of a circular, segmented, flower-like stage drenched in an unsettling purple light; and, leering across at her from a glass case, the fearsome mechanical endoskeleton of T-800 from the original and best Terminator movie (1984).

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I was pleased to see T-800 on display because he – sorry, it – is a very rare example of the cinema getting robots right.  Too often, filmmakers anthropomorphise robots, i.e. invest them with human traits and emotions, just as we do with animals in children’s books, fables, cartoons and so on.  Hence, you get movie robots fretting like camp English butlers in the Star Wars franchise or acting as gruff, wisecracking sidekicks to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81).  And don’t get me started on bloody K9.

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T-800, however, properly behaves like a machine.  It never deviates from its programming, which means it relentlessly pursues Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) with the purpose of destroying her, whilst eliminating anything or anyone else that gets in its way and threatens to impede its mission.  And that’s it.  Like a genuine machine, it does what it’s designed to do.  Other rare but honourable examples of cinematic robots that do only what it says on the tin (or on the packaging case), without any interference from human emotions, include the deadly, self-assembling, self-repairing war-droid M.A.R.K. 13 in Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990) and Yul Brynner’s android gunslinger in Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1974).  Actually, the Brynner android follows its programming, which is to allow human tourists to shoot it ‘dead’ in mock Wild West gun battles at the Delos amusement park, up to a point.  Then it malfunctions and follows what the malfunction tells it to do, which is to hunt those tourists down and kill them…

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But back to the Robots exhibition.  After the viewing those glamorous movie robots, you get to see some ‘real’ robots from the 1950s and 1960s, which look so clunky they make the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz (1939) seem sleek and elegant.  By ‘real’, I mean they were built by inventors but steered by controls and were incapable of autonomous movement.  Actually, I felt rather sorry for them, with their bucket heads, slit mouths, wedged noses, boiler-shaped torsos, clamp-like hands and massive slabbed feet.  Compared with what’s just ahead of them in the exhibition, they resemble old folk sitting uncomprehending and lost in a corner of a party predominantly attended by youngsters.

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And then it’s into the realm of modern robotry and we get to see the results of how scientists, engineers and technicians have attempted to replicate the skeletal, muscular, nervous, circulatory and other systems of the human body in machine form, using intricate networks of rods, pistons, levers, wires, cables, tubes and so on.  There are some truly odd things on display here.  The designs of a couple of the robots have been so modelled on human anatomy that they – vaguely – resemble flayed or dissected cadavers.

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The exhibition saves its trump card for the end.  Its final stretch is an identity parade composed of some of the 21st century’s most notable robots.  I’ve seen clips of individual ones on TV news reports or online videos, but it’s rather overwhelming to see so many of them together in one place.  They include Robina (‘Robot as Intelligent Assistant’), which was developed by Toyota and from 2007 to 2009 ‘was used as a museum tour-guide’.  It resembles a food-blender base with giant arms and pincer-like hands, topped with what is sometimes called a ‘classic alien face’ (i.e. oval-shaped and having big black eyes).  Also equipped with pincers is the more ominous-looking Baxter, ‘the world’s first two-armed robot designed to work together with people.’  With a part-cylindrical, part-oblong, all-black torso, a TV-shaped head and a pair of powerful red arms, Baxter looks faintly arachnid-like, despite having only two limbs.

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Elsewhere, there’s Kodomoroid, whose name is derived from kodomo – Japanese for ‘child’ – and ‘android’.  Its flexible silicon skin was sculpted ‘from a whole head cast of a female model’, its teeth sculpted ‘from a separate cast of the model’s mouth’ and each of its hairs was inserted ‘on its body by hand’.  In fact, Kodomoroid didn’t strike me as particularly child-like.  Seated on a white cube, it looks like a prim and slightly shrunken Japanese auntie, incongruously dressed in a surgical gown, white ballerina shoes and a microphoned headset.  Japanese technology has also produced the Human Support Robot, which can ‘be operated directly by home users’ and ‘obey simple voice commands, for example, to fetch medication or draw the curtains.’  Basically a long, multi-jointed arm attached to a mobile cylinder with a face-like panel on top, the Human Support Robot is aimed at elderly people who are housebound or bedbound but who feel it’s unbecoming to depend on the services of a human home-help.

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I like the thinking behind Kaspar, a little robot doll designed as a ‘social companion’ for children with autism and other communicative issues.  For example, it can tell the kids if they’re holding it too tightly, thanks to it having pressure-sensors under its skin.   However, the show-stealer when I was there was RoboThespian, who can ‘deliver its lines in over 40 languages, wink, roll its eyes and lock gazes with individuals using facial recognition technology’ and who looks like a somewhat stripped-down C3PO with a dish-shaped face and square eyes.  A couple of kids were leaning towards it over the barrier when suddenly it lurched into motion, pointed at the them and blared, “Here’s looking at you, kid!”  Those kids promptly sprang a yard backwards.

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I’d expected a longer viewing experience at Robots, having paid ten pounds for a ticket, but I guess it was a costly business filling even the relatively-small area of the exhibition with so much hi-tech hardware from so many countries.  Still, it was always absorbing – and occasionally enthralling.   

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