Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

You, Robot

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

You, Robot

Article excerpt

Did you know that there are robots in the Iliad? There are: Hephaestus has "female servants made of gold", who "look like living servant girls, possessing minds, hearts with intelligence, vocal cords and strength". Pretty much everything you'd want from a servant made of gold.

The idea of lifelike machines crops up through literature, from the Jewish myth of the golem to Hans Christian Andersen's artificial nightingale with jewelled plumage. The word "robot", however, was first introduced to the public 91 years ago by the Czech playwright Karel Capek (it means "serf").

To celebrate, the Science Museum in London is offering a month-long celebration of robots, beginning with an event that brought together more than 20 specimens to show how diverse the field is. "There are ten million robots worldwide," says Paulina Latham of the European Union National Institutes for Culture, which organised the show--so we're now more excited than terrified by them. "There used to be a fear of technology - this idea that it was humans v technology - but now we live with so many in our everyday lives."

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Stuart Umbo from the museum agrees. "Robots have been used for a while in manufacturing, in surgery--but within five to ten years they'll become much more prominent in our homes."

Valley of the dolls

One of the keys to making us accept robots is to negotiate the "uncanny valley". The basic principle is this: we like human faces and find them easy to interact with and "read". …

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