From the beginning of time, men have always dreamt of machines that could make life easier for them. And so, the history of mankind is, to a large extent, a history of invention, from the Stone Age axe to spacecraft that travel through the cosmos.
Nowadays our dependence on technology, especially computer technology, is overwhelming our everyday lives. We are on the verge of what some scientists call a “singularity”, a time in which man and machine could merge into a single, self-aware being. This poses a moral dilemma because if that is possible, how would we tell the difference between a human being and an artificial one? What are the consequences for mankind?
These are just two examples of questions for those who visit the exhibition ROBOTS, currently on show at the Science Museum in London. The exhibition begins showing the first automatic devices, like clocks or figures with an intricate mechanism inside them that could move their arms and legs. During the Industrial Revolution men started to look at machines with mistrust as they began to automatically perform the manual tasks men had been performing, leading to a great number of job losses.
Today this tendency has not only persisted, but rather it has accelerated, and the labour market is constantly changing with workers forced to adapt to the new demands of a complex technological society. The relationship between computer operated machines, or robots, and man has also been a constant motivation for science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov; movies and literature have been able to reflect that duality in feelings that robots seem to bring out in humans, i.e. fascination and fear.
As far back as 1927, the film “Metropolis” by German director Fritz Lang deals with these questions. In this movie, the workers who live and work under miserable conditions in the underground of a Megapolis decide to rise against their employers. And this uprising is led by a robot. It reflects the disdain with which those who have the power treat the rest of the inhabitants of the city and how they value machines more than men and women.
Another example of the interaction between humans and robots is “Forbidden Planet” (1956) directed by Fred M. Wilcox. The script is based on “The Tempest”, by William Shakespeare, but in this case set in the space age. Robby the Robot in the film plays the role of Ariel in Shakespeare’s play, and he obeys all the orders his master Morbius gives him, except when those orders are at odds with the second law of robotics, set by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov: “A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law”.
In the film “2001, A Space Odyssey” (1968) directed by Stanley Kubrick, the sentient computer Hal 9000 suffers a breakdown triggered by the conflict between the orders it had been given by the authorities on Earth about withholding information from the astronauts about the purpose of the mission and its general assignment to relay information accurately.
And talking about science-fiction movies and robots that look like humans, we must not forget “Alien” (1979), directed by Ridley Scott. An extremely dangerous extraterrestrial being, the Alien, is allowed on board a spaceship, the Nostromo, thanks to a robot who is identical to the rest of the members of the crew and who ends up being a mortal foe to his companions.
In these films the future is a time when robots are self-aware and they take their own decisions, sometimes disobeying their creators, in a sort of Rebellion of the Machines. So, a question arises here: is Artificial Intelligence a menace for mankind? Many people believe that the danger is real. But if we go back to the beginning of the 19th century, we find that at that time workers considered machines as their enemies and responsible for being fired.
And what do we think about the situation today at the beginning of the 21st Century? Do we still believe that machines, computers or robots, are responsible for unemployment? Could machines ever really exist by themselves without the help of humans? We must not forget that humans have the capability of improvising when facing unexpected situations, something that a computer cannot do…at least so far.
This exhibition helps us to better understand the world of robots and robotics, and also to face all the questions that come up when considering the relationship between humans and machines.
Lucía Vázquez Bonome
ROBOTS is on at the Science Museum, London, until the 3rd of September 2017.
Lucia Vázquez Bonome lives and works in London. She holds a degree in Advertising and an MA in Creative Advertising, both issued in Spain. She has undertaken two screenwriting courses at Morley College in London. While studying advertising, she discovered her passion for writing which translated into her professional life: since 2014 she has written articles for the website ‘The State of the Arts’ where she write reviews on theatre plays, movies, books, art galleries and interviews artists belonging to different artistic fields. Her love for storytelling led her to compile a collection of short stories into a children’s book entitled “Un Verano Mágico” (A magical summer) which was published in Spain and has been translated to English.
Featured image: ROBOTS (Installation view) (2017), Science Museum, Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian