Soft Robots

Recently, I had the luck to see the new ‘Robots’ exhibition at the Science Museum in London, described as ‘The 500-year quest to make machines human’. I found it fascinating, and often moving.

Robots derive from our desire to fulfil and satisfy human needs, whether practical or emotional, and are, perhaps, better contextualised within the framework of the arts, which given us a concept of these machines, and their forebears, that goes back to ancient times. The photo  is of a Japanese humanoid empathy robot modelled on a teenage girl and given the means to replicate human expression. These child robots are given the name ‘Kodomoroid’.

The word ‘robot’, comes from the Czech word meaning ‘slave labour’, and the robot was first imagined in a modern context in an arts context as a play in 1920 by Karel Čapek – Rossum’s Universal Robots. The play concerns worker humanoids made from some unspecified biological process. Perhaps to most of us today, the word ‘robot’  conjures an image of a synthetic human, a metal man, a servant, a war machine – something made to extend human agency, made for human purposes. The designation ‘robot’, is used to describe many kinds of remotely and quasi-independently operated machines. The term is also applied to ‘virtual’ robots that scour the internet to gather sensitive data  for their human masters. Perhaps some of the creations of virtual life and fantasy computer worlds could be thought of as robots.

The ‘Robots’ exhibition is wide-ranging, following a time-line from the 16th C to the present day covering the concepts from the ‘clockwork’ universe, when it was imagined that perhaps the human body  could be seen in mechanical terms, through to modern industrial and medical robots. It includes ‘Maria’ the beautiful gynoid robot from the 1925 novel by Thea Von Harbou – Metropolis, made into a film by Fritz Lang in 1925. The novel concerns a utopian society kept running by a secret underclass of slave workers whose leader is a girl called Maria, whose aim is to improve the lives of the workers by reconciliation with the denizens of Metropolis.

Industrial robots are now used in all kinds of circumstances, such as welding, and as remote operators in places where humans are at risk, as in high radiation zones and bomb disposal. They can also operate at scales where the human hand is too large or imprecise, and the eye inadequate.  Generally, they are not ‘humanoid’ as a Rossum’s ‘machine’, but are designed for function. Most automated machinery can be considered to have a robotic aspect.

It is argued that robots are displacing humans in the workforce, but robots that we use are merely machines. Maybe by anthropomorphising them, we sensitise the argument.  Machines have  been replacing human labour since we learned to use stone wheels to grind corn. There are many jobs that are unpleasant and repetitive, and ill-paid, which could perhaps be mechanised, but technology needs to be integrated into societies in ways that makes life better for everyone – not just the denizens of utopia. It is arguable that by commodifying human labour we are regarding human beings as robots anyway. Perhaps, one day, we can remove ourselves from the ‘economy’ altogether. Will that be ‘utopia’?

To return to the idea of a humanoid machine, like the kind that Asimov proposed in his robot stories, we can consider technological era machines from perhaps a century past, although the idea of transference/transformation from an inanimate form is thousands of years old. Consider golems, idols and mythology. Ideals made manifest in statue form, such as Pygmalion’s Galatea. People have created ‘mechanical men’ and other creatures, often for entertainment. They give an eerie, if clumsy representation of life, but they are not yet ‘robots’, but they tell us something about our humanity in the ambition and process of their creation.

Perhaps the externalisation of self to the extent of making a ‘clay copy’ is a defining human characteristic amongst animals. We do this for practical purposes, and for psychological and perhaps spiritual reasons, possibly to create an ideal form, or to offer companionship. I find it fascinating. Some of the new robots are designed as ‘comfort robots’ to serve emotional and practical needs of humans, perhaps as company to lonely older people, or to offer distant loved ones a robotic ‘hug’ from a remotely operated human interface, or a machine that looks eerily like a real human being. Are these creations the way to help the ills of modern society, where we are all too busy working to attend to our families?

For all we are keen to make copies of our ‘selves’, we are disturbed by these simulacra, as we are by masks and statues, suits of armour, or even dress-shop mannequins. We imbue them with human sensibilities; the drive to identify human, and animal, characteristics is deeply encoded in our brains. We see faces in shadows. It is a survival tool. It seems to me to be a natural extension of our consciousness, a drive that inspires us to make art and literature. And the making of human images has not gone uncensured in certain religious teachings, because of its power of transcendence.

Humans reach into the world beyond the reach of arm, leg, voice. Technology has given us tools to send machines into space, our voices to the stars. Perhaps it is territory marking. In this regard, we share characteristics with other creatures, from bacteria to elephants. This is my place. But machine use is not confined to humans. Using a stick or stone to get at the food locked inside a shell or buried in the ground, is a method used by many animals, so we could argue that machine use is driven from instinct.

It is hard to separate the living body from the automaton; the machine exists  to serve our needs and desires, whether or not we truly understand where the impulse arises.  Soon, bio-medical technology will integrate us ever more closely to machines, whether for extending or replacing physical function, or to enable closer communication. We are moving fast, and ever deeper, into the nano-world of electronics.

There will come a time when the paradigm will move into uncharted territory, when a robot will learn independently from its environment beyond its originator’s parameters. Imagine a sophisticated robot system sent to explore the deep sea, or an inhospitable planet. A networked robotic system, capable of interacting on vast scales, could develop in ways we have not envisaged. We could argue that it is a natural evolutionary consequence.

Asimov’s high-level robots were autonomous, capable of acting independently. They had positronic brains that acted on decision processes driven by potentials. Safety features were built in to ensure that they did no harm to humans, based on logical balance of consequences. In Asimov’s stories, the most sophisticated robots were hard to distinguish from human beings, but therein is an irony. Humans are not programmed to ‘do no harm’ to others. The human brain is flexible and mutable. Its main job is to keep us alive. Neuroscientists warn us that it cannot be represented as a simple ‘computer’, in the way it is often envisaged. Researchers know that certain brain areas are associated with certain functions, but have begun to uncover the flexibility and adaptability of a biological system that has developed from simpler organisms over billions of years. We have begun to explore synthetic biological networks, and can now link the human nervous system to an electronic interface to operate a prosthetic arm, for instance. I can Imagine that our relationship to machines will tell us many things about ourselves, and that our future evolution could take us in different directions, branching into areas where we cannot yet even clearly formulate a plan or a question. The humans who can survive on other worlds, or in space, will need the help of machines if they will feel truly ‘at home’. But will the human-machine lack humanity? I suggest, not at its core, although the sense of being may change, and seem alien to us now, but the agency at the heart of the man-machine interface will see things in human terms, and so the heart of the hybrid will be essentially human. This is not necessarily a cosy thought, as Nature is red in tooth and claw, and there is much barbarity in human behaviour. But I hope that there is room or greater capacity for compassion and love, but what are those concepts but things that float upon human consciousness?

As Thea Von Harbou remarked of her novel – ‘The mediator between the brain and muscle must be the heart’.


Related blog posts: Meet the Avidians, The Zombie in the Room, This Flesh We Wear.


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