A couple of weekends ago I experienced a very frightening incident alongside a business partner of mine. Or to be more precise, I was the cause of this incident and it was very frightening for him. We had been driving across the south of Edinburgh in his car when it became suddenly impossible for me to speak. Words burst like bubbles on my lips; my eyes widened helplessly. As my associate subsequently described it, I was shutting down like a robot when the power cord is yanked out.
Then he also noticed that one hand was still going. It was busy in my messenger bag, groping for the single thing that could rectify this situation…
A 330ml bottle of urgently sugary Coca-Cola.
Any Type 1 diabetic will possess an intimate understanding of just how akin to robots we actually are. I know that the alertness of my consciousness is directly pegged to how much glucose is in my bloodstream, and that keeping my glucose at the correct level will ensure that my consciousness performs at its sharpest. From this, I cannot fail to be aware of how my brain is a piece of chemical machinery, since I have been placed in constant manual control of one of its levers. Perhaps if you suffer from depression or alcoholism, you will have learned through thick and thin how the fluctuations in a different chemical input govern your own brain’s performance.
At Robots, a typically luxurious new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, there is a creeping feeling that we are really here to meet ourselves. This show steadily becomes an existential chamber of horrors. Scientists from throughout history and around the world have started out by stripping humanity down to its most basic machinery, and then trying to build it up again with artificial materials.
You might be initially reassured by how little headway has been made. Between them, all of the robots in this exhibition could not run a whelk stall. Yet whilst much in this harvest garden of technology is far from ripe, the soil remains eternally fecund. If we, as a species, continue to try to replicate the agility of our bodies and the computation of our brains in electrical machines, then it is only a matter of waiting until we and the robots are indistinguishable. I do not know if this will take decades or centuries, but it is the endpoint that all evolutionary robotics is leaning towards.
The Robots exhibition glories in the resulting existential dread. It begins on a real creeper – an animatronic baby, which makes tiny restless movements until you end up studying it almost hysterically. When the first room introduces us to a collection of nineteenth-century automata, you might assume that these are merely appetisers before the main meal. I find myself peeping at a wind-up rabbit that was manufactured by Roulette and Decamp in the 1890s. You turn a crank, there is a pause, and then it rustles to life, cavorting stiffly inside a cabbage. This is a toy and hardly a sincere or sophisticated forgery of Nature’s hand. The point is being nonetheless made that this bunny is very much a part of robotics and that robotics is a universe of counterfeits. A rabbit’s value – or indeed ours – hinges purely on whether or not it can pass a visual test, like a banknote at the till.
Even so, Robots is barred from climbing inside our involuntary horror of automata (incidentally, the starting point for Sigmund Freud’s ground-breaking essay on “the uncanny”) since these reactions are naturally subjective. The exhibition instead sets itself on a more philosophical footing. It summarises the “golden age” of automata by recounting how, “the idea that somehow we might all be machines too rather than unique individuals with free will, seemed improbable or even frightening.”
I think that the humanist is actually in deeper water here. We are duty bound to insist on the uniqueness of human beings, but what makes us unique is our ability to take control of Nature and stretch its apparent limits. Creating a flawless simulacrum of ourselves entails such a crisis because it crowns our uniqueness at the very same time that it dethrones it. We finally wield the power of gods even as we slide from being on top.
There is still a lot of fun to be had when the robots settle for caricature. Tony Sale’s homemade robot George (1949) endearingly sports the sticky-out ears of a weedy schoolboy. By the 1990s, the robots were beefing up with realistic tendons and sinews. ECCE’s robots rise out of a pool of wires and gristle, looking scarily like spaghetti that is taking human form. From the lurid circus-tent lighting of the automata gallery, we pick our way up to the clinical brilliance around the modern Japanese exhibits. These are no longer laboratory experiments but ready-for-market produce.
Here I am not so sure that the exhibition is undertaking a comprehensive survey of robotics. Nothing in Robots comes close to the dexterity of Boston Dynamics’ designs and it is unclear why this stratospheric technology is not being profiled. Perhaps the notoriously secretive company has somehow successfully forbidden this exhibition from ever mentioning it. The “superhero” Mars-bound robot Valkyrie is not physically present but it still gets its own video display panel, even though this machine looks painfully doddering when compared to Boston Dynamics’ thrusters. Valkyrie is, of course, based at Edinburgh University, so this might come down simply to the privileging of a local fiefdom.
It is frustrating that Eric, an illustrious orator, and Harry, a talented trumpeter, stand as silent as the dead, but these robots are probably deactivated so as to not unduly swell the exhibition’s hubbub. Some robots, such as George, have to be stilled because there is not the floorspace available for them to lumber about on. There are doubtless other practical reasons why the curators had to be selective about which machines they chose to set in motion. If all of these robots were plugged into the mains, it could feasibly bring down the entire National Grid. Or else, the museum’s electricity bill would be so steep that they would need to discreetly release pharaohs and suits of armour on to the black market.
Where these robots are switched on, they are sometimes unsatisfying to interact with. R.O.S.A. shuffles listlessly in its enclosure, reminding me of those visits to the zoo as a child when the lions and polar bears were always disappointingly lethargic. I sense that I am doing something wrong – that if I behaved as I was required to, R.O.S.A. would erupt merrily into life. In one notable glitch, Inkha, a supposedly conversational head, shuts down at the start of an encounter with me. Tapping on its touchscreen alarmingly brings up a private controls menu. Kodomoroid, an android newsreader, was unable to hold its initial eye contact with me and it was soon nodding and blinking drunkenly to itself.
I got off to a bad beginning with RoboThespian, which greeted me with a cheery “Hello there Miss!” Things improved considerably on our second meeting, when it identified me, admittedly rather wildly, as a “young” man.
Zeno is a toddler-sized robot that is meant to copy your facial expressions. Its youthful face is peevish and surly, making it vaguely resemble a fairy that has been cheated in a bargain. It is possibly mirroring the facial exasperation of today’s queue of users. Zeno also mumbles rather disagreeably and adults have to duck low into its visual range, since it has been placed on a level with children.
The pert and birdlike Pepper puts on much more of a show, with its fluid Tony-Blair hand movements and its rather wonky story about a treasure hunt. Pepper has shifted 10,000 units, more than all of the other robots in this exhibition put together. Despite this, I am never overwhelmed enough by its charm to lose sight of the simplicity of the commands and responses. Pepper is in truth somewhat like a storytelling Tesco self-service machine.
I never feel that I have made any more of a connection with these robots than I would have done with an electrical kitchen appliance. Fatefully, my disbelief is never suspended. If I was walking down a suburban street in Edinburgh, with plenty of people within earshot, and I met a cat, I would address the animal naturally e.g. “hello there, aren’t you a pretty cat?” Why is it, then, that I feel self-conscious and foolish in speaking to these robots when there are other people around me?
The cat and the robot are surely synonymous, in that neither of them possesses consciousness. The answer is that, yes, the cat is a machine, but it interacts with us in a far more spontaneous way and, hence, for the anthropomorphist, it is better at presenting a human front. Robots cannot yet override the advantage of being tailored from flesh and blood.
These robots come across ultimately as a bit preposterous. At the conclusion of the exhibition, we jump from Baxter, a pair of cumbersome mantis arms that aimlessly rearranges small toys on a table, to the suggestion that this shaky technology could one day colonise Mars. It is rather like some cavemen who have just carved a stone wheel fantasising about holding a Grand Prix.
An ocean of technical adjustments might lie between the reality and the ideal, but it is impossible that you could ever write off these robots. The existential dread of Robots is that at each new machine you ask yourself, “how am I different from this contraption?,” and if the answer is that you are massively superior, there is always another machine waiting and another and another and another.