Robots: The 500-year quest to make machines human



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It’s the 1700s. The field of mechanics is flourishing, and new science is allowing innovators to design and create complex, moving, geared machines. Through this phase of robotic germination effort is focussed on mimicking basic natural biology and behaviours (see The Silver Swan pictured). Whilst existing only as pre-programmed installations, these machines gave birth to the dream of the mechanical human.

As technology flourished more attention and effort was poured into making machines which moved and behaved more like humans. The ultimate aim was to create a robot which could interact with its environment and, as a result, teach itself. The most compelling example of this at the Science Museum was Emily, a robot which independently taught itself the difference between an apple and banana – initially a fairly mundane feat, however consider that this was achieved without any input from its creators.

 

But as these machines developed ever more human characteristics there was an unexpected transition in how people envisioned a future with robots. Researchers and builders begun to develop relationships with who these machines had become. The value of their charm and character surpassed their impressive mechanical and electronic achievements. The focus started to shift to a robot’s meaning rather than pure imitation.  A series of distinct fields have recently established themselves, exploring the application of this almost-human emotional stimulation. 

The most profound is the application of robots for social support. One series of robots supports children with Autism in their development of social interactions. These robots can run through an interaction without the chance of fear or exclusion for the child involved. These robots, as basic as they currently are, have become friends of their human companions. 

An alternatively exciting vision is of robots as precise partners. This is a future of robots as colleagues in the workplace or home, whose ability to sort, manipulate and repeat give them real value. 

Whether robots will become companions or colleagues seems somewhat irrelevant in the face of the value that these incredible machines already give to an increasing percentage of humanity. The development of these machines, from wound handles and turning gears to semi-conductors and 3D printed parts has stretched the bounds of their designers’ creativity. Whatever the future holds, if one thing is highlighted by this amazing exhibition it is that robots are coming…the question is are you ready?