Robots colonise the Science Museum

In a large L-shaped room upstairs at the Science Museum in London there are wires, toolkits, motors and sensors piled up in every corner and very intelligent engineers staring intently at the machines in front of them.

The machines come in various forms, but human features are common. Hands wave their fingers, pairs of cameras focus and track objects in front of them and arms bend extend. The Robotville exhibition, more than 20 of Europe’s most advanced robots and their creators all gathered together for the first time, is setting up.

Two days before the show opens few of the exhibits are ready for public view, but that doesn’t stop the two small boys who have found their way into the press view from running around with their eyes like saucers, leading a giant artificial ladybird - built in the 1950s - across a table using a light and a set of panpipes here, or holding out a ball to be grasped by an artificial hand there.

The decor is finished, even if the robots are struggling a little, and celebrates the European theme. The golem, Frankenstein’s monster, Auguste Villiers’s Future Eve and Karl ńĆapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (from where the word ‘robot’ originates) are all quoted and illustrated on the walls, and each model has a booth, styled to look like its intended setting. Here is a doctor’s surgery, there a classroom, there a sitting room.

Emys, a robotic head made of three discs that constructs facial expressions from simple movements and recognises the expressions of faces that it can see, twitches in the corner. iCub, a child-shaped robot body built to understand how the brain develops, stands in the middle of the room reaching for objects that come into its field of view. Empty coffee cups pile up in corners as the work progresses.

The next day there are fewer empty booths and the engineers are looking more confident. Museum curators move between them and the video crews that have assembled to film the robots.

The makers of EcceRobot, a skeletal torso and head designed to replicate the way human bones and muscles work, pick up a theme common to a number of the robots on display. Professor Owen Holland of the University of Sussex leads the team. He said: ‘We built the problem that we wanted to solve. We don’t have anything that works as well as muscle so we have to fill the skeleton up with motors and these elastic cords [he pushes against the robot’s arm to show how it stetches and pushes back] but we think that if you’re going to see robots walking down the street, this is the best way to do it.’ The way the mind learns depends upon the way the body exists in the real world, he says, so a human-like intelligence depends upon a human-like physical presence. I ask if he’d like to see human-like robots walking down the street, and he laughs and says maybe in 20 years or, indicating his colleague, maybe next year.

Rob Knight of The Robot Studio, who built EcceRobot, is making a humanoid robot complete with arms, hands and legs, to be completed in 2012. The stretchy, compliant limbs of Eccerobot will make it behave far more like a human body than any of the motor-driven traditional robot designs, he believes.

The great attraction of Robotville is not the robots, wonderful as they are. It’s the scientists who stand next to them. Each robot is accompanied by its inventors, ready and eager to talk about its origins, the challenges they face and the way they want to progress.

Heather Mayfield, deputy director of the Science Museum, said: ‘I’ve been working at the Science Museum for more than 30 years now, and I’ve never known a scientist not want to be helpful.

‘The exhibition’s only on for four days as these are experimental models, and it turned out that a week would just be too long for them to be out of the lab. So we said come for four days, and that’s going to be OK. We’re really hoping people will look back on this and see it as something that really inspired people.’ Starting on the 1st of December and running until the 4th, a corner of the Science Museum packed with robots and engineers surely can’t fail to do that.

The Telegraph

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