An android toddler lies on a pallet, its doll-like face staring at the ceiling. On a shelf rests a much more grisly creation that mixes imitation human bones and muscles, with wires instead of arteries and microchips in place of organs. It has no lower body, and a single Cyclopean eye. This store room is an eerie place, then it gets more creepy, as I glimpse behind the anatomical robot a hulking thing staring at me with glowing red eyes. Its plastic skin has been burned off to reveal a metal skeleton with pistons and plates of merciless strength. It is the Terminator, sent back in time by the machines who will rule the future to ensure humanity’s doom.
Backstage at the Science Museum, London, where these real experiments and a full-scale model from the Terminator films are gathered to be installed in the exhibition Robots, it occurs to me that our fascination with mechanical replacements for ourselves is so intense that science struggles to match it. We think of robots as artificial humans that can not only walk and talk but possess digital personalities, even a moral code. In short we accord them agency. Today, the real age of robots is coming, and yet even as these machines promise to transform work or make it obsolete, few possess anything like the charisma of the androids of our dreams and nightmares.
That’s why, although the robotic toddler sleeping in the store room is an impressive piece of tech, my heart leaps in another way at the sight of the Terminator. For this is a bad robot, a scary robot, a robot of remorseless malevolence. It has character, in other words. Its programmed persona (which in later films becomes much more helpful and supportive) is just one of those frightening, funny or touching personalities that science fiction has imagined for robots.
When Douglas Adams unleashed Marvin the Paranoid Android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on Radio 4 in 1978, the idea of a robot with a human-like personality was already enough of a cliche for Adams to have fun subverting it. Instead of being either loyal servant or sinister would-be overlord, Marvin shares our unenviable human capacity for self-pity and despair. “Brain the size of a planet and you want me to clean this spaceship.”
Would we really want to replicate melancholy in a machine? Perhaps we would, if robots are ever to genuinely relate to human beings. Just before Marvin came along, the original Star Wars in 1977 had imagined two kinds of robot – a mobile computer, R2-D2, and his much more humanoid interpreter C-3PO whose attitude shares some of Marvin’s wounded passive aggression. More recently, Matt Groening’s sc-fi cartoon Futurama featured Bender, a robot who smokes and drinks, is a liar, an egomaniac and a thief. In the latest Star Wars episode Rogue One, K-2SO is a converted Imperial droid who is constantly behaving insensitively and apparently selfishly – in short an electronic jerk.
Can the real life – well, real simulated life – robots in the Science Museum’s new exhibition live up to these characters? The most impressively interactive robot in the show will be RoboThespian, who acts as compere for its final gallery displaying the latest advances in robotics. He stands at human height, with a white plastic face and metal arms and legs, and can answer questions about the value of pi and the nature of free will. “I’m a very clever robot,” RoboThespian claims, plausibly, if a little obnoxiously.
Except not quite as clever as all that. A human operator at a computer screen connected with Robothespian by wifi is looking through its video camera eyes and speaking with its digital voice. The result is huge fun – the droid moves in very lifelike ways as it speaks, and its interactions don’t need a live operator as they can be preprogrammed. But a freethinking, free-acting robot with a mind and personality of its own, Robothespian is not.
Are today’s robots any closer to true agency than the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton that amazed 18th- and early 19th-century Europe? This lifelike early robot beat all-comers at chess, apparently by the power of a clockwork brain. It was a hoax. In reality a chess grandmaster was hidden inside the machine controlling its every move. Robothespian is no hoax. It is a state-of-the-art robot, with complex movements and interactive responses – but it can not think for itself. Robotics is a long way from creating anything with as much personhood as Marvin the Paranoid Android.
That is not for want of trying. Robots reveals that human beings have been obsessed with automating ourselves for at least 500 years. Early automata in this exhibition include a Spanish 16th-century painted wooden statue of a monk that can move by clockwork. This attempt to give a statue the illusion of living movement fits well with other art of the age when it was created. Religious art from the 16th and 17th centuries includes gorily realistic sculptures of the dead Christ covered with blood and faces of the Virgin apparently shedding wet tears: to animate such statues was just another way to awe and move the Catholic pious.
Our fascination with synthetic humans goes back to the human urge to recreate life itself – to reproduce the mystery of our origins. Artists have aspired to simulate human life since ancient times. The ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, who made a statue so beautiful he fell in love with it and prayed for it to come to life, is a mythic version of Greek artists such as Pheidias and Praxiteles whose statues, with their superb imitation of muscles and movement, seem vividly alive. The sculptures of centaurs carved for the Parthenon in Athens still possess that uncanny lifelike power.
Most of the finest Greek statues were bronze, and mythology tells of metal robots that sound very much like statues come to life, including the bronze giant Talos, who was to become one of cinema’s greatest robotic monsters thanks to the special effects genius of Ray Harryhausen in Jason and the Argonauts.
Renaissance art took the quest to simulate life to new heights, with awed admirers of Michelangelo’s David claiming it even seemed to breathe (as it really does almost appear to when soft daylight casts mobile shadow on superbly sculpted ribs). So it is oddly inevitable that one of the first recorded inventors of robots was Leonardo da Vinci, consummate artist and pioneering engineer. Leonardo apparently made, or at least designed, a robot knight to amuse the court of Milan. It worked with pulleys and was capable of simple movements. Documents of this invention are frustratingly sparse, but there is a reliable eyewitness account of another of Leonardo’s automata. In 1515 he delighted Francois I, king of France, with a robot lion that walked forward towards the monarch, then released a bunch of lilies, the royal flower, from a panel that opened in its back.
Leonardo da Vinci’s robots were more than gimmicks. They reflect the way he thought about nature. In his anatomical drawings, many of which record his own careful dissections of corpses, he sees the human body as a complex and marvellous machine. On the same sheet as his famous drawing of a foetus in the womb, for instance, he shows the wall of the womb connected by protruberances like the teeth of gear wheels. This vision of tiny cogs working in the human body reveals how he saw us not as angelic wonders – the religious orthodoxy of his time – but as contraptions, our ligaments pulleys, our eyes cameras. His greatest simulcra still exists. She is called the Mona Lisa.
Da Vinci applied the same science that inspired his automata to his most famous portrait. The smile of Mona Lisa reflects his research on the mechanics of “the muscles called lips”. Her lifelike eyes embody his understanding of optics. Contemporaries responded to the Mona Lisa as a hypnotic imitation of life: Giorgio Vasari writing in 1550 goes into ecstasies over her illusory life.
One of the most uncanny androids in the Science Museum show is from Japan, a freakily lifelike female robot called Kodomoroid, the world’s first robot newscaster. With her modest downcast gaze and fine artificial complexion, she has the same fetishised femininity you might see in a Manga comic and appears to reflect a specific social construction of gender. Whether you read that as vulnerability or subservience, presumably the idea is to make us feel we are encountering a robot with real personhood. Here is a robot that combines engineering and art just as Da Vinci dreamed – it has the mechanical genius of his knight and the synthetic humanity of his perfect portrait.
Art and science come together in the dream of the robot. To replicate humanity is a feat of artistic illusion as much as an engineering challenge. In the 21st century, robots with mask-like faces, plastic anatomies and friendly handshakes can, and do, draw on the ways artists have tried to reproduce the look and feel of human life for centuries. Yet the dream of the robot that shares human emotions is still, for now, a fantasy.
• Robots is at the Science Museum, London SW7, from 8 February until 3 September.
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