I, robot: the machines are here and have us in their sights

Rob’s Open Source Android
Left, Rob’s Open Source Android (ROSA), like all the robots in our fashion shoot, appears in the London Science Museum’s ‘Robots’ exhibition until September, before the show moves to Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry. Right, jacket with belt, £3,500; trousers, £1,400, both by Louis Vuitton. Fashion: Isabelle Kountoure
(Image credit: Brigitte Niedermair)

Few technologies have been so extensively foreshadowed as robotics. For nearly 100 years, we’ve indulged in an array of speculative fictions that have defined the form, function and social impact of robots far in advance of the available technology. As a result, automation is treated more as a cultural trope than an economic threat. All the while the robots are fermenting the stealthiest industrial revolution in history.

We delved behind the scenes at the London Science Museum’s recent exhibition about our obsession with mechanical life forms. As well as asking the big questions about robotic pasts, presents and futures, the show offers up a rogue’s gallery of android approximations of specialist applications, from healthcare through to entertainment.

mechanical baby

This lifelike mechanical baby, made by a special effects company, has latex skin and metal joints, which allow it to sneeze, move its arms and legs, and appear to ‘breathe’

(Image credit: Brigitte Niedermair)

Popular perception of robots rarely aligns with reality. Large swathes of modern industry are automated beyond the point of no return. Cars, white goods and electronics all depend on robotic manufacture, and the huge labour populations deployed to assemble iPhones, laptops and sneakers are also being usurped by robotic alternatives with no need for dorms or unions. China is the largest buyer of industrial robots in the world. Yet, for most consumers, it matters not a jot if an assembly shop is powered by sweat or sparks; the end result is the same. Instead, we seem hard-wired to seek out emotional attachments with robots, happily ignoring the irreplaceable mechanical ballet of the robotic production line.

Perhaps this is our species’ great mistake; we want robots to be familiar and friendly, whereas their uglier, more adept relatives are quietly doing the heavy lifting we’d rather not deal with. As a result, the path to automation is unstoppable, with global industrial robot sales rising year on year. Change will come with the robotic shift from physical to emotional labour.

Projects like Komodroid, a ‘robot newscaster’ that reads headlines without inflection or emotion, letting you project your own feelings, or ROSA (Rob’s Open Source Android) with its imitation of human muscular structures and spooky face-tracking ability, only scratch the surface of our desperation to love, and be loved, by the machine. Many generations of cultural representation have given robots direct access to our heartstrings, and we haven’t even touched on the thorny issue of sex, let alone death.

robot wallpaper

(Image credit: Brigitte Niedermair)

See more of the September 2017 Style Special here

It’s safe to say that every conceivable human interaction (and form of fluid exchange) will eventually be subcontracted to a machine. Along the way, we’ll take the mandatory trek to the ‘uncanny valley’, a dive into the awkward intersection between true-to-life human features and the skin-crawling consequences of getting it a bit wrong.

This partly explains why humanoid, but not human-like, robots generate the most affection among those who interact with them. A robot is still best at doing a single thing exceptionally well, be it sifting, sorting, sweeping, welding or stamping. And yet technologists and consumers seem compelled to empower our metal friends to do much, much more. Unfortunately, we have little idea of what will happen once they actually can.

As originally featured in the September 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*222)

ROSA, built by roboticist Rob Knight

Left, dress, £1,330, by Issey Miyake. Right, ROSA, built by roboticist Rob Knight, was inspired by the structure of the body, and its movements are uncannily human. It has facetracking software and motors which allow its neck and eyes to follow people as they move around

(Image credit: Brigitte Niedermair)

the Honda P2 prototype

Left, the Honda P2 prototype, which, when it was unveiled in 1996, was the first humanoid robot capable of independent walking. Right, jumpsuit, £5,535, by Chanel

(Image credit: Brigitte Niedermair)

ROSA has a plastic skeleton structure controlled by ropes

Left, ROSA has a plastic skeleton structure controlled by ropes that act as tendons and motors that act as muscles. Right, coat, €745, by Dolce & Gabbana. Leotard, £40, by Repetto

(Image credit: Brigitte Niedermair)

the world’s first robot newscaster

Left, top, £795; skirt, £2,950, both by Balenciaga. Right, Kodomoroid was made in 2014 and is the world’s first robot newscaster

(Image credit: Brigitte Niedermair)

robot newscaster Kodomoroid is modelled closely on a real person

Left, robot newscaster Kodomoroid is modelled closely on a real person, from her precise dimensions to casts of her teeth. Right, coat, £2,750; pumps, £720, both by Calvin Klein 205W39NYC

(Image credit: Brigitte Niedermair)

INFORMATION

‘Robots’ is showing at the London Science Museum until 3 September. It will then show at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester from 19 October 2017 to 15 April 2018 as part of the Manchester Science Festival. For more information, visit the London Science Museum website (opens in new tab)

ADDRESS

London Science Museum
Exhibition Road
London SW7 2DD

VIEW GOOGLE MAPS (opens in new tab)

Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.