Robotville invades the Science Museum

By Jennie Gillions | 30 November 2011
A photo of a robot against a blue office background
© Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia; Italian Cultural Institute in London
Exhibition: Robotville, Science Museum, London, December 1-4 2011

Interested in how robots are changing our world? You have four days to book your (free) spot at the Science Museum’s fascinating, occasionally unsettling festival of European robotics, the opening extravaganza in a month-long celebration of robots.

The idea for Robotville came from a seven-year-old boy, Rohan Tryc-Bromley, whose Polish mother worked with European Union National Institutes for Culture London to realise his idea.

An image of a robot which looks like a small child playing with some kind of orange and yellow coloured drum toy
KASPAR is a child-size robot who moves his arms and head and changes his expression, designed to help children understand emotions© University of Hertfordshire; LIREC EU FP7 project
A world where robots are part of everyday life has been the dream of children, adults and sci-fi writers for decades; the 20 robots in this exhibition, developed by European experts, make this dream seem an inevitable reality.

Some of the robots are eerily life-like. Charly, a product of the University of Hertfordshire, has a projected face that morphs into the faces of those around him. He was designed to judge reactions, and find out how people would like robots to look.

Similarly, Concept, another UK development, has a baby face that changes expression as he learns from you, and was created to see how humans react to life-like technology.

Italian child-sized robot iCub is helping researchers understand how our brains develop; it 'plays' with people and learns from them.

As we watched, one of the roboticists teased iCub by moving a ball just out of its reach. The robot moved with the ball, trying to catch it, until the roboticist relented and gave it to him.

A photo of a metal pet with a robot head on it
Concept, created by designers from Plymouth University, changes his expression as he watches visitors and learns from them© Frederic Delauney
These robots raise questions. As they get increasingly human, where do we draw a moral line regarding, for example, sending them into war zones or asking them to do household chores? After all, the word 'robot' came from a Czech word meaning, literally, 'serf labour'. Do we want robot slaves to look like us?

In some ways, robots that look like us are ideal for their purpose. Kaspar is another child-size robot, designed to help autistic children understand emotion and how to interact with others.

He can move his arms and head, and change his facial expression; he also plays peekaboo and laughs if his feet are tickled. He is intended to be a relatable friend to the children he helps.

There are also gimmicky robots, designed more as toys or gadgets. Lithuanian Couch Jouzas, for example, is a robot personal trainer. A cute baby dinosaur, Pleo, was developed to test robots' suitability as pets.

These are fun, but again provoke questions: should a robot replace a human personal trainer? Are animals at risk of being abandoned if we can have 'pets' that don’'t shed, need feeding or cost us money in vet bills?

Robot versus human fallibility is also touched on in I-Sur, an interactive simulator which lets you operate on a virtual patient, and asks whether you would trust a robot surgeon.

There is no doubt that Robotville fulfils the Science Museum’s intention to showcase some incredible developments in robotics.

It is well worth seeing, both for the opportunity to appreciate what is possible and to judge for yourself how you feel about robots becoming an unavoidable, everyday part of your future.

Read Jennie Gillions's blog and follow her on Twitter.
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