Robots exhibition opens at the Science Museum

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A toy robot, to illustrate the Robots exhibition at the Science Museum
  • The Science Museum opens their Robots exhibition, exploring 500 years of our fascination with engineering human-like machines

It’s one of the most iconic – and poignant – scenes in cinema: a dying ‘replicant’ reflects on a short life filled with wonder, while profoundly regretting his imminent expiry date. The death of Roy Batty at the climax of Blade Runner exemplifies how we’ve come to see robots: less as ‘vacuum cleaner’, more as ‘nearly human’ – or even ‘human-plus’; astounding, eerie or cuddly clankers inspiring wonder, affection, sometimes fear. And although the word ‘robot’, meaning a humanoid automaton, was first coined in 1920, the notion of a mechanical servant is much older, dating back to ancient Greece.

This long, complex relationship is explored in Robots, a major new exhibition at the Science Museum, which charts the uniquely human urge to “rebuild ourselves as machines”, and the role that factors such as religion, the industrial revolution, 20th-century pop culture and artificial intelligence have played in shaping our approach to developing such technologies.

More than 100 such creations, some interactive, will be on display – from a 16th-century ‘mechanical monk’, made of wood and iron and operated by levers hidden under its robes, to a 2.4-metre-tall robot from the 1950s called Cygan. Of particular interest is Eric, a ‘talking’ robot built in 1928 by a pair of British inventors, who was originally paraded at the Royal Horticultural Halls in London, before vanishing forever after a world tour. Thanks to a Kickstarter campaign to rebuild him, however, Eric lives to spark wonder again.

Other attractions for entrepreneurs in search of android inspiration include a simulated live medical procedure performed by a robot surgeon, a robot-themed sleepover for grown-ups, which includes a midnight showing of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, panel discussions, screenings of movies such as The Terminator, Robocop and Metropolis – and even a robot comedy quiz show, hosted by a real-life working robot. Hecklers beware.

For more information on the Robots exhibition

Robots is at the Science Museum from 8 February–3 September

sciencemuseum.org.uk/robots

@sciencemuseum

About author

Ali Catterall

Ali Catterall

Ali Catterall writes for a wide variety of publications, including the Guardian, Total Film and Director. He is co-author of Your Face Here: British Cult Movies Since the Sixties

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