V&A Dundee

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Hello, Robot. A beginner’s guide

Our new exhibition ‘Hello, Robot.’ opened in early November and examines the speculative future of robotic design while questioning the role robots play in our lives. Read on for an introductory tour of the show and its themes.

With new technological developments being made every day and robots increasingly finding their way into our homes, our workplaces and even our pockets, it has never been more important to understand the relationships between humans and machines.

“This is an exciting time, and the right moment to be asking big questions about the role robots should and will play in all our lives,” says Kirsty Hassard, one of our curators.

A metal toy robot from the 50s.
Yonezawa, Directional Robot, 1957 private collection (© Andreas Sütterlin)

“How and where we encounter robots, the sort of relationships we form with them, and how we interact with them – or they with us – is no longer the exclusive domain of engineers and IT experts. Designers are now often at the centre of these decisions.”

Below is a brief overview of the different rooms you’ll encounter as you walk through the exhibition and a few highlights from the 200 objects you’ll see. Whether you’re excited about the prospect of drone home deliveries or are a self-confessed technophobe, there’s something that will make you pause for thought.

Hello, Robot. is divided into four stages of robot influence , asking seemingly simple questions along the way. The first section focuses on the science and fiction of robots, tracing our fascination with artificial humans and looking at how popular culture has shaped our feelings about them. Here you’ll be asked to consider your first experiences of robots and to question any preconceptions you may have.

The droid R2-D2 against a grey background.
R2-D2 from the Star Wars series. (© Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved)

It was in Japan that toy robots were first mass-produced and exported around the world. In the 1950s and ‘60s Japan was at the top of the toy-making industry, in part due to cheap metal and the country’s established printing methods. Robotic toys like the Directional Robot, named because its head moves in the direction it’s moving in and changes when the toy hits an obstacle, proved popular and for many would have been their first introduction to a robot.

Later film franchises like Star Wars helped sustain children’s fascination with robots. The original R2-D2 film prop first appeared in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope and quickly created a whole new generation of robot devotees.

The exhibition then delves into the world of industry and work, looking at the impact of robotics from several different perspectives. As well as exploring the idea that robotic technology poses a threat to jobs, you’ll also explore how robots can create opportunities, whilst considering the role human creativity plays with increasing automation and accessible technologies like 3D printing, potentially harking the end of factories.

A sloped table on which sits paper and a robot arm holds a pen and writes on it.
robotlab (ZKM), manifest, 2008 (© robotlab)

In this section, a scribe robot automatically generates unique ‘manifestos’ consisting of eight statements selected from its internal memory. The robot draws on dictionaries relating to art, philosophy and technology to produce statements on paper, most often nonsense but sometimes scarily perceptive, which then fall to the floor (and can be taken home with you).

Something you’re more likely to come across in a factory is YuMi, a robot designed to work side-by-side with humans without the need for barriers. It can take over repetitive and monotonous tasks, easing the physical impact on the human operator it’s working alongside.

A white and grey robot with two arms.
ABB Ltd., YuMi®, dual-arm industrial robot, 2015. (© ABB Ltd)

The third section of the exhibition shows how we are increasingly coming face-to-face with robots as household helpers and digital companions. At this point you’ll be asked to consider if you’re willing to become dependent on smart helpers, if objects can have feelings and to what extent robots can replace humans in social contexts.

A baby's cot with a draped white blanket and cluddly toy next to it is stood in front of a yellow robot arm holding a baby's bottle.
Stephan Bogner. Philipp Schmitt and Jonas Voigt, Raising Robotic Natives, 2016. (© Jonas Voigt)

Here you’ll see the prospect of an industrial robot adapted to feed babies and drones redesigned to look less threatening. You’ll also meet Friend 1, part of the Making Friends by Making Them series by designer and engineer Dan Chen, a desktop robot that senses stress levels by monitoring activities and offers comfort by patting your hand with a gentle moving arm. It has also been programmed to say: “It’ll be alright”.

The exhibition ultimately turns to the blurring of the boundaries between humans and robots, from hi-tech fashion that can sense danger and put up a physical barrier to the idea of robotic architecture and smart cities.

A silver triangular robot with a long outretched part strokes a human hand.
Friend 1, Dan Chen, making friends by making them. (© Dan Chen)

This part of the exhibition includes BionicANTs that can communicate with each other and make decisions without human involvement, which leads to the question: Are robots are advancing evolution?

A robotic ant against a black background.
Festo, BionicANTs, 2015. (© 2017 Festo AG & Co. KG)

After considering a series of provocative questions exploring our perception of robots and artificial humans, the impact this technology has had on industry and the increasingly blurred boundaries between human and machine, we hope you’ll come away with questions of your own.

Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine is on until 9 February 2020.