Robots through the centuries on show

RoboThespian, a life-size humanoid robot, will give theatrical performances at 20-minute intervals at the exhibition.
RoboThespian, a life-size humanoid robot, will give theatrical performances at 20-minute intervals at the exhibition.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

LONDON • A singing robot and a 244-year-old working model of a silver swan will greet visitors at a new exhibition spanning 500 years of humanity's quest to build intelligent machines at London's Science Museum.

The Robots exhibition that opens this month will feature more than 100 models in what the museum calls the most significant collection of humanoid robots ever displayed.

Among the star attractions is the British-built RoboThespian, a full- size humanoid robot that will move around the exhibition, do vocal exercises and give a theatrical performance to visitors every 20 minutes.

The Silver Swan automaton was designed and built in the 18th century by John Joseph Merlin, the inventor of roller skates. It featured at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, where it was seen by American author Mark Twain, who later described it in his novel, The Innocents Abroad.

Other notable pieces on display include the original skeleton of the T-800 robot used in the filming of Terminator Salvation (2009), Honda's Asimo humanoid robot and Inkha - a reactive robotic head that offers cheeky fashion advice to viewers.

Visitors to the section of the exhibition featuring modern robots will be reminded of the dystopian film, I, Robot (2004), in which robots and artificial intelligence threaten humanity's survival.

"I must say that we're very, very far from anything like that," said Professor Giorgio Metta, vice-scientific director at the Italian Institute of Technology and builder of the iCub toddler robot, also on display at the exhibition.

"The applications we manage to develop now are very narrow, so artificial intelligence can solve very specific problems. There's no way they can learn anything else or autonomously switch from one task to another."

Robots runs till Sept 3.

The swan will feature for only six weeks - this month and the next.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'Robots through the centuries on show'. Print Edition | Subscribe