Machine touch?

IN-TOUCH visited the London Science Museum’s new Robots exhibition this week. The exhibition sets out to understand what it means to be human by exploring the ‘very human obsession to recreate ourselves’.

The quest to build ever more complex robots has transformed our understanding of the human body, and today robots are becoming increasingly human, learning from mistakes and expressing emotions.

The exhibition tells the cultural, historical and technological story of humanoid robots through over 100 robots from the 16th-century mechanical characters to robots from science fiction and contemporary cutting edge research labs. The exhibition opens with a robotic baby that slowly opens its eyes and reaches out. It was made for use in films apparently and is very life like. IN-TOUCH love babies and I found it disturbing not to feel anything toward the little squirming robot. Then it slowly opened it eyes – but it was creepy rather than appealing. We started at this uncanny valley. As the robots became ‘less humanoid’ my emotions grew, which I found interesting. The robots became more human to me as they became less humanoid.

Unsurprisingly IN-TOUCH was drawn to the robots potential for touching, handling and manipulating. The exhibition narrates the wide range and complex movements people can make with their hands, more so than any other living creature, and how this makes humans unique. It also visualizes the difficulty that robots have in handling objects as well as some of the ways in which touch and grip are designed.

A range of Shadow Robot Company hands were exhibited  capable of gripping a drill, threading a needle, and able to move thumb and fingers to mimic nearly every move of a human hand.

One exhibit shows Cyskin tactile sensors are flexible touch sensors that can cover the curves of a robot’s body (like skin). It collects tactile data that enables a robot to sense which part of its ‘body’ is being touched, and with how much force. The aim is that this will enable robots to interactive with humans in more intuitive and safer ways.

The BioTac Sensor is an exhibit that shows the potential of robots to mimic the physical properties and sensory capabilities of the human fingertip – and to ‘discover the future of machine touch’. BioTac is capable of sensing: force, vibration, and temperature which is ‘identical to human touch capabilities’.

The potential of robot-assisted communication is a key theme of the exhibition, notably in the form of robots that receive, interpret and respond to facial expressions.

Zeno is a child sized robot that detects facial expression, and then mirrors it: a therapeutic potential that is being used by researchers to explore and assist children on the autism spectrum to understand and communicate emotions.

Telenoid is a ‘huggable’ ‘telecommunication avatar’ that stands in for the person on the other end of a telephone conversation. I have to say I am not sure I could hug a Telenoid. It is designed to ‘bring people on long-distance phone calls closer together’. The caller’s voice and movement are captured by a microphone and camera and these are physically communicated to the receiver.

The exhibition posses a range of questions underpinned by human fear, anxiety, desire, and playfulness. Asking for example ‘could technology with a face and body one day be so satisfyingly real that we drift even further apart? Could robot-mediated contact replace face-to face interaction entirely? On the basis of this exhibition I would say there is a long way to go before that happens. Although according to recent piece by Trudy Barber The potential for virtual reality falling in love could already be a deeper experience than ‘in real life.

After the exhibition we went onto the Barbican to watch Robot a performance by the Blanca Li Dance Company. The performance engages with humanity’s evolving dependence on technology and the increasingly blurred boundaries between human and machine.  In the performance the dancers and robots mimic each other’s characteristics, with the aim, which is not always fully achieved, of them becoming almost interchangeable. What I found interesting was the emotions that the Nao Robots evoked in me, and others in the audience, as it fell and managed to right itself after falling flat on its face. It is very toddler like and I felt so protective of the little creatures. But could I love a robotic baby or toddler?

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