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.

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’

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.

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)

RELATED TOPICS: TECHNOLOGY, LONDON EXHIBITIONS