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Why, robot?

Published: 28 December 2018

Robots come in many guises, but one category of robots has long been of particular interest to us—humanoids.

Why are we so fascinated with machines that resemble humans physically or behave in lifelike ways?

Robots and human nature

'Design for a Clock in the Form of an Elephant with an Indian Driver', by al-Jazari

Human beings have a strong tendency to attribute human form or behaviour to objects.

We are used to seeing the human form expressed in art, but mechanism has also been a used as a medium for expressing our reimagined selves.

This reimagining may seem a 20th century phenomenon, the natural result of a sci-fi-saturated culture, coupled with recent advances in computer technology.

But in fact this phenomenon has existed for at least 500 years, and possibly much longer.

The engineer al-Jazari's illustrations of automaton servants and musicians, which were published as far back as 1206 CE, are an early example.

Medieval robots

Automaton monk, attributed to Gianello Torriano, Toledo, Spain, c.1560 Smithsonian Institution
Automaton monk, attributed to Gianello Torriano, Toledo, Spain, c.1560

In searching for the earliest robots, we discover a whole world of miniature mechanical people.

At the medieval dinner table, automatons—moving mechanical devices made in imitation of a human being—might have dispensed wine, played music or crewed finely-wrought sailing ships, perhaps accompanied by simulated gunfire.

Elsewhere, manuscripts were illustrated with all sorts of robots.

They were depicted guarding tombs, discreetly reminding revellers of their manners, and much else.

Even clocks had robotic features, with automaton figures in their mechanisms that enacted complex performances every hour or made bells chime.

Historian Jessica Riskin wrote that before they became mindless machines, robots were 'the life and soul of the party'.

The golden age of automata

Machines of the 18th century could reproduce human activities like playing musical instruments or writing, with subtle movements deftly created by intricate mechanisms.

Automaton Draughtsman-writer by Henri Maillardet, London, c1800. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London. Courtesy of The Franklin Institute Science Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Automaton draughtsman-writer by Henri Maillardet, London, c.1800

For example, they were cunningly programmed to finish writing a sentence with a flourish of the hand, or to acknowledge their audiences with a nod.

These mechanical masterpieces provoked questions about the differences and similarities between people and machines.

Industrial robots

In the 19th century, cybernetic mechanisms were built into some of the early factory machines used in cotton mills. 

Thomas Robinson's power loom factory, Stockport, c.1850
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Thomas Robinson's power loom factory, Stockport, c.1850

The self-acting mule for spinning cotton thread was described by industrial commentator Andrew Ure as 'the Iron Man':

A machine apparently instinct with the thought, feeling, and tact of the experienced workman.

Here was an industrial robot, unstoppable, untiring, and intended to replace errant human workers.

In this new industrial world, humans were reduced to the role of unthinking automatons—small, insignificant cogs in a huge, impersonal industrial machine.

Why do we build robots?

On one level, our motivation for building robots is the desire to make things quickly and efficiently. But the sheer variety of robots that has developed over time reveals to us that our impulse to build them is driven by reasons other than just functionality.

Robots satisfy our desire for a show or spectacle. They speak to our innate curiosity about our own bodies and appeal to our sense of fun.

Biped robot, designed by David Buckley and made by the Shadow Robotics Project Group, London, 1987–1997
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Biped robot, designed by David Buckley and made by the Shadow Robotics Project Group, London, 1987–1997
Robina Partner Robot created by Toyota Motor Co., Japan, c.2007 Science Museum Group Collection
Partner robot 'Robina', created by Toyota Motor Co., circa 2007

Early robots projected a magical quality to the people who saw them. Even today we get an uncanny sense of living organisms working together when we see a robotic production line in full swing.

This sensation is bolstered by our tendency to anthropomorphise; to attribute human forms or behaviours to objects.

Some roboticists hold that the human form is not ideal for tasks handled by robots.

At the same time, they remind us that we project our own emotions onto machines and that the robot we call he or she should really be referred to as ‘it’.

But despite these efforts to keep us rational, we find it hard not to anthropomorphise. It’s one of those things that we humans just do.

As roboticist Brian Duffy wrote in 2012:

And then, the robot looks back at you.