Inside a railway arch in Brixton, a piece of history was brought back to life. First built in 1928 by Captain Richards & A.H. Reffell, Eric is one of the UK’s first robots. Eric’s design was relatively simple. He was automated, but the interesting thing about Eric is how much extra stuff people read into him. Ingenious electrical instruments enabled Eric to hear questions and answer in a human voice.
On September 28 1928 Eric stood up at the Royal Horticultural Hall, bowed, looked right and left and moved his hands as he proceeded to give an opening address as sparks flashed from his teeth.
The New York Press described Eric as the “perfect man,“ built less than a decade after the word robot was used for the first time, Eric toured the world with his makers but then vanished, seemingly forever.
Nobody knows if the robot was thrown out, or lost, but it’s apparent that Eric once lauded for his technical prowess became an early victim of technological obsolescence. He may have no longer been needed or wanted even though he may have still been in working order.
In May 2016, over 800 Kickstarters investors campaigned to bring Eric back to life. Roboticist and artist Giles Walker created a replica of Eric using just a handful of archived news cuttings, pictures, and video. The robot is built with the same finesse as modern robots but purposefully lacks their capabilities. Eric is controlled by a pre-programmed sequence, using software similar to that used for controlling lights in theatres.
By resurrecting Eric, Russell and Walker want to make people reevaluate the place of robots within our history and society at large.
Commissioned by the Science Museum and funded through a successful £51,000 Kickstarter campaign, Eric is on display at the South Kensington museum ahead of a Robots exhibition in 2017 and will thereafter tour the world just like he did more than 90 years ago.
The new exhibition will feature more than 100 robots, from a 16th-century mechanical monk to robots from science fiction and modern-day research labs.
In whose image are robots made?
According to Russell, Curator, London Science Museum the answer seems to be “ourselves.”
Robots are almost like mirrors, they reflect back on ourselves, tell us who we areBen Russell, Curator, London Science Museum
As research into artificial intelligence continues, we will continue on the path of making artificial intelligence (AI) in our image. But can Christian thought provide an alternative approach to how robots are made?
The original Eric is a product of a time when an intelligent robot was still a far-off possibility. At the time, filmmakers and audiences treated these robots instrumentally; there was little sympathy for the robot dead.
Times, however, have changed. Christopher Orr, writing in The Atlantic, notes that there is a major philosophical shift in the newest version of Westworld: A shift from concern for the creators, made of flesh and blood, to concern for the created, made of steel and silicon.