Robots, Science Fiction, and Humanity

Science fiction has had a preoccupation with robots and the social and moral implications of a more mechanized world. Within the genre, authors frequently play out the moral and ethical implications of artificially intelligent machines as a way of addressing aspects of what makes us human.

The Science Museum’s exhibition Robots: The 500 Year Quest to Make Robots Human tackles how we dreamed up robots, how we are making them now, and what we imagine them becoming in the future. Despite being nominally “about” robots, the focal theme running throughout the exhibition is the human imagination that fuels their designs and engineering.

The exhibition opens with automatons from the pre-Industrialized period. These intricate creations are full of awe for the art of clockwork pieces and are from a time when anatomists began trying to understand the human body in terms of these machines.

The room called “Dream” asked: “What emotions have our dreams of robots captured?” The hopes and fears engendered by humanoid machines were represented by the robots that have populated pop culture and science fiction – from Metropolis to Terminator, from remote controlled tin robots to the idea of a disembodied artificial intelligence (AI).

The penultimate room was designed like a workshop, with different stations displaying attempts to create parts that could carry out individual tasks that, when put together, would mimic humanity: manipulation, intelligence, perception, movement, communication, learning, interaction. Individually, the builds looked incomplete, like so many parts of a robot waiting to be constructed, Legos in a box.

The last room was called “Imagine” – linking the visitor’s mind very intentionally to the room “Dream.” This is where science fiction becomes reality, a rogues’ gallery of robots in little white cubicles, the sales room after the workshop. The visitor is called to imagine the increasing involvement of robots in our lives. Robots for more personable Skype calls, robots for hugging, robots for medical care, work, support, robots to help those on the autism spectrum, robots that tell jokes and robots that tell the news from silicone, human faces. Robots for making our everyday lives easier.

(c) plastiques photography

I always find it a bit eerie going from the world of science fiction to science-science, mostly because it seems a bit prophetic, a bit mystical. Writers and artists dreamt up these futures, these machines and cultures, and then decades later versions of them are coming true. Then there are the robots and engineering challenges that are stranger than fiction. I would never have thought building a bi-pedal robot could be more difficult than ones with facial recognition. There is a narcissism in human imagination, to think that a machine should resemble a human.

Leaving the exhibition, I felt uneasy – these robots with their inhuman faces made me uncomfortable and I couldn’t pinpoint why, especially since I’d recently read A Search for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi, which features a nurturing robot character. A little bit Wizard of Oz, a little bit Alice in Wonderland, this book follows Eva-nine, a girl gestated and raised in a fully automated Sanctuary bunker by a Muthr robot designed to rear children and prepare them for the post-apocalyptic Earth outside.

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 8.44.22 PM
From A Search for Wondla (c) Tony DiTerlizzi

The story raises all sorts of interesting questions about what it means to be human, as the last of the human race have emerged from their Sanctuaries to find a planet now populated by refugee aliens. (Side Note: Dealing with all these sentient not-humans, we need a different vocabulary for describing the qualities we usually call “humanity.” In Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis describes his sentient humans and aliens as hnau – which means a creature with intelligence and empathy. I imagine it pronounced |huh-now| but imagine it as you will.)

While the good aliens and bad humans draw attention to the ethnocentric idea of humanity, the story also uses its main robot character to question if this “hnau” nature is limited to organic creatures. Muthr seems like a standard robot – she is programmed to take care of Eva-Nine, but when they are forced to leave the Sanctuary and deal with an alien earth, her AI adapts. Muthr begins to show signs of caring for Eva and (spoiler alert) ultimately sacrifices herself to save Eva-Nine. Once Eva reaches a human city, she meets a different Muthr bot and is distraught at the difference between Eva’s Muthr and this soulless robot.

Robots have captured our imagination and represented both our anxieties and hopes for the future. While Muthr seemed to become more human in a loving, nurturing way, there have been plenty of real life instances of AI reflecting the more terrible aspects of human behavior. Some AI have become racist and sexist just because they took the data available on the internet and interpreted the inherent sexist and racist language structures as the correct constructs.

In the strange silicone faces of the care-giving robots in the final room of the exhibition, I saw the beginnings of Muthr. Is this what we are aiming for? Automated child-rearing? Why does the idea of more robots make me anxious?


Although it doesn’t delve into the exhaustive moral, philosophical and ethical debates, the exhibition acknowledges our imagined fear of robots. In Doctor Who and Philosophy, one writer pointed out that the robotic Daleks were wonderful villains because they were examples of rationality gone too far. That in the post-industrialized world, we fear “robota” as it was first defined – soulless forced labor of people. We fear humans being treated with unfeeling reason because it is our emotions and ability to relate to one another that makes us human. Not “I think therefore I am” but “I feel therefore I am.” And if humans are robots when we don’t feel, what about robots that do feel? What are they?


Explore Further

Robots at the Science Museum!

Science Museum’s Robot Blog

Getty Images Album of the Exhibition

Meet the Robots

Wondla Website

The Search For Wondla by Tony Diterizzi

A Hero for Wondla

The Battle for Wondla

Suggested reading

For anyone interested in robots, artificial intelligence, or the line between humanity and technology

All Isaac Asimov

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Speaker for the Dead (only after reading Ender’s Game please!)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Astro Boy

2001: A Space Odyssey 

How to Survive a Robot Uprising

All the Birds in the Sky



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