A 450-year-old monk and his friend, a modern Japanese newscaster are in London for the next few months, conveying to anyone who will listen what it means to be human. The duo are both robots, part of the largest exhibit of humanoids ever to be assembled and presented as a single show.
On Tuesday, the Science Museum in London opened its new exhibit, Robots which is open until September 3. The collection runs through the range of robots, from ancient automatons from 1560, to robots from 1920s science fiction, to creepy humanoid babies. Although the word robot has only existed since 1920, the exhibit makes the argument that robots have been around for at least 500 years. With that history of automation, it focuses on why people have been making robots for so long, and how robots express something intrinsic about humanity.
The friar robot, built around 1560, is characteristic of a whole realm of ancient automatons that were used to illustrate religious scenes. Its origins are a bit of a mystery, but it moves and prays thanks to a clockwork mechanism inside it.
Automatons were pretty common in religious scenes in the 16th century, says Ben Russell, the show’s curator. They were used as a symbol for belief, not so much as a feat of technology. However, it’s definitely a little weird to look at a mechanical human that’s about 450 years and realize that it was built to mimic a human as best it could at the time.
And engineers have certainly gotten better at mimicking people. The exhibit also features the Kodomoriod (a portmanteau of the Japanese word “kodomo,” or child, and “android), a communications robot built in 2014 by Osaka University and ATR Laboratories. Kodomoriod is pretty “uncanny valley” with its hair, very lifelike eyes, and human expressions. But it might not be human bodies that people really want to imitate in robots, Russell says in the video that supports the exhibit, but the human mind.
Inkha, the robot receptionist that greeted visitors at the King’s College in London, is best known for its personality, and is also on display.
Either way, the exhibit suggests that people make robots to reflect what it means to be human in some way, from movement to personality to even animatronic babies: