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Robots Revisited « MAD Blog
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Robots Revisited

In the wee hours of the morning on August 6th (for those of us watching from the Eastern time zone), the Mars Curiosity Rover touched down on our planetary neighbor, making it the ninth robotic visitor from Earth to explore the Red Planet’s surface. It’s the most advanced yet, technologically speaking, but NASA’s also put a new spin on this mission with Curiosity’s strong social media presence: an adorably personified Twitter feed gives status updates in a friendly first-person voice. It seems such a small thing, but it’s a wonderful bit of alchemy—what could easily have been a clinical vehicle of science now appears as an intrepid, curious robot, eager to live up to its name (and to send us fantastic high-res pictures of the Martian surface).

A rendering of the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Robots have been part of the public consciousness for a long time, in formats both science and fiction. In 1984, MAD—then the American Crafts Museum, or ACM—was one of the first American museums to mount a comprehensive exhibition on the topic (so the museum’s press releases claimed, at least). Running in New York from January 13th to May 11th of that year, then touring the U.S. until 1986, The Robot Exhibit: History, Fantasy & Reality traced the human interest in automation from its earliest beginnings to the technological triumphs of the late 20th century. It was guest-curated by Robert Malone, author of The Robot Book, a 1978 text that charted the robot’s technological and cultural development.

ComRo Inc.’s “Bumpy” (a 1978 remote-operated personal robot) greeted visitors at the entrance of The Robot Exhibit. Photo by Ralph Gabriner.

The exhibition began with a quick tour of robotic predecessors. Malone argued that medieval alchemists’ efforts, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century clockwork automata, and the earliest days of electricity all formed part of the foundation for modern robots. Even ancient sources provide a glimpse into the human interest in automation: the oldest object in the catalog is an Egyptian toy dog with a lever-controlled jaw, from around 2,000 B.C.E. While the distinctions between automata, robots, and plain old machines are sometimes difficult to parse, objects like these nevertheless show that the desire to make objects that mimic the behavior of living creatures, or that can move under their own power, has a long history.

A distant ancestor of the robot? Egyptian toy dog with lever-activated jaw, c. 2,000 B.C.E. Image printed in the catalog for The Robot Exhibit, p. 11, unattributed.

A French piano-playing automaton from the late nineteenth century. Photo by Ralph Gabriner; printed in The Robot Exhibit catalog, p. 17.

The bulk of the show, however, focused on the twentieth century, and the feedback loop between fiction and reality that sustained the evolution of robotic technologies. The term “robot” itself originated with a 1921 play by Czech playwright Karel Čapek, whose satirical R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) quickly popularized a truncated form of the Czech word robota, meaning “forced labor.” Many early stories about robots were in response to the mechanized horrors of the First World War, and presented dark narratives about the dangers of technology run wild; Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a particularly famous example.

But then, somewhere along the line, the robot’s reputation was rescued. Malone gave some credit to avant-garde artists and designers (many of whom glorified the union between machine and man) for their role in the changing connotation of robotics. But, he argued, it was mainly author Isaac Asimov and editor John Campbell, and their now-famous Three Laws of Robotics, that finally established a firm connection between the fantastic and the scientific. From there, ideas quickly trickled down into the realm of childhood—another major focus of the exhibition—resulting in midcentury toys like the Japanese “Nando” and, later, the inevitable licensing of the iconic droids from Star Wars.

Left: “Nando” toy robot, Japanese, c. 1950; from the collection of Lloyd Ralston, Fairfield, CT. Right: “C3PO” action figure, American, c. 1984; lent by General Mills Toy Group, New York, NY. Photos by Ralph Gabriner.

Having given the audience an understanding of the historical and narrative background behind the robots of its day, the exhibition displayed working robots of several kinds: homemade machines built by individual inventors, like the “DC-Prober” by 19-year-old Robert Profeta, which bore more than a coincidental resemblance to R2-D2; commercially-produced personal robots like Topo or TOT, who apparently served as a “host” for the exhibition; and industrial robots of the sort used in car factories or space shuttles. Another section explored artists’ interpretive use of robot forms, like Nam Jun Paik’s expressive mixed-media constructions. The installation itself had a vaguely Bauhaus-ian flavor that might’ve seemed unusual in a museum that typically exhibited ceramics or glass or fiber art. But part of the exhibition’s contention was that the core values of craft—the creative use of materials, skillful construction, innovation in form—could be found in even the most futuristic of subjects.

Clayton Bailey’s “Regal Robot” on display in the exhibition. Photo by Ralph Gabriner.

Two views of The Robot Exhibit installed in the American Craft Museum’s space at the International Paper Plaza. Photo by Ralph Gabriner.

The Robot Exhibit was a groundbreaking survey of the important (and often contradictory) places the robot has occupied in both the functional underpinnings and imaginative aspirations of modern life. According to a museum spokesperson quoted in the May 1984 issue of The Crafts Report, the exhibition generated the best attendance numbers of any show in the ACM’s thirty years, as well as a massive amount of press coverage.

Looking back from 2012, it’s especially interesting to note that the marketing narratives for a shiny, robot-filled future have remained largely the same—ten years till there’s one in every home!—but that particular version of reality always seems to stay just out of reach. The limitations and expense of the technology are largely to blame; voice-recognition software in its earliest days was frustratingly inaccurate, as we know, but even today, Apple’s Siri still has some trouble distinguishing a request to find the nearest Starbucks from a command to call your mother (the more things change, the more they et cetera). But there’s maybe a touch of good old-fashioned human ambivalence toward the concept of artificial life and the existential questions of consciousness at work here as well. As Robert Malone muses, in The Robot Exhibitcatalog, about the increasing numbers of robots at work in society: “We might predict that we will like some of them and abhor others. Has it ever been different?”

Honda’s ASIMO robot. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In the meantime, until we each have an ASIMO to ourselves, we’ll have to make do with the domesticated Roomba (whose owners happily anthropomorphize them, often to hilarious effect) and the uncanny valley of experiments like the HRP-4C and her android kin. We’ll also have robots like the Curiosity Rover, whose work of exploring the universe allows them to participate in a very human quest for knowledge—the same one that led us to create robots in the first place.

 
 

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