WHEN you walk into the forthcoming exhibition on robots at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS), you will first see a rosy, nappy-wearing baby, dreamily wiggling in mid-air, backlit by a soft halo.

Step to the side, and the truth is revealed. A column of wires explodes out of its back, into a knot of pistons and circuitry.

It’s a prop from the film industry, ensuring no actual little one is harmed on set. But from its flaxen hair to its chubby thighs, the human realism of this object creeps the flesh.

The National:

The animatronic baby on display in the Robots exhibition

We are constantly being told that the robots are coming. They will take our blue-collar and our white-collar jobs. They will remove White Van Man for good, and install the codemakers and tech moguls as impregnable elites forever.

That is, if we the people don’t get a grip on them. We need laws, regulations and institutions that put their productivity at the service of human society, instead of polarising it and ripping our collective fabric apart.

However, this fascinating exhibition raises a very direct and interesting question: will it make a difference if these robots and automatons happen to look like us?

They don’t have to. They can be unstoppable single manufacturing arms. Or strange five-limbed techno-packhorses. Or column-like vacuum cleaners and hotel maids.

But for decades, centuries, even millennia, humans have been dreaming of artificial, inorganic men and women. Golems which spring to life and challenge our definitions of ourselves.

Never mind Thandie Newton sashaying across the latest series of Westworld. We’ve been in a robot fever for a long time.

For example, the NMS exhibition cites the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, where the bold warriors fight the giant bronze Talos, guard of Crete. Ovid’s Pygmalion created a female statue so compellingly beautiful he became “not interested in women” anymore.

These mythologies – which also emerged in Egyptian, Arabian and Indian civilisations – spurred the actual making of automatons. In the Zhou and Tang dynasties of China, human-like devices were made that could sing and dance, help dress noblewomen and do the toast at banquets.

There is a rich and long global record of mechanical figures that were both entertainments for the wealthy and scientific experiments. They literally helped scientists and philosophers find out what makes us tick.

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The entrance to the Robots exhibition, featuring an animatronic baby

The 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes thought humans and animals were biological machines. In that mindset, Descartes carried with him in his travels an automata – a clockwork doll – in the shape of his dead daughter, Francine.

This is all a mild reminder that our weirdness around robots is not exactly a recent matter. In The Secret Life Of Puppets, the cultural scholar Victoria Nelson suggests that we pour a lot of misplaced spiritual yearning into these simulated humans – particularly in the sci-fi of the movie era.

Take the soulful “mechas”, imagined by Kubrick, in Spielberg’s A.I., gently returning the android boy to his mother for one precious day. Or the humanoid machines in Iron Giant, I, Robot, or The Day The Earth Stood Still, making moral decisions that easily transcend their supposed fleshly superiors.

All these entities are giving us a lesson in higher humanity. They are, as Nelson puts it, “Divine Machines”. Some of that semi-religious reverence has slipped over into our yearnings about artificial intelligence.

The idea that computers and algorithms could be fed all the data about our society, and make just and fair decisions unaffected by messy human emotions, is a current article of faith in Silicon Valley at the moment. (It’s also at the core of Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling books of the past few years).

Yet, as the Edinburgh exhibition reminds us, the exact term “robot” itself emerges from a much less exalted, indeed grimier, context.

The word comes from the Czech robota, meaning “forced labourer”. It was coined by the brother of playwright Karel Capek, who put the term into his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), premiering in the Prague of 1921.

Read it now, and – apart from some clunkiness of dialogue – it’s as if the basic story, and certainly the basic anxieties, about robots and humans, haven’t changed in a century.

In the words of Domin, the director of R.U.R:

Domin: The best sort of worker is the cheapest worker. The one that has the least needs. What young Rossum invented was a worker with the least needs possible. He had to make him simpler. He threw out everything that wasn’t of direct use in his work, that’s to say, he threw out the man and put in the robot.

Miss Glory, robots are not people. They are mechanically much better than we are, they have an amazing ability to understand things, but they don’t have a soul.

Young Rossum created something much more sophisticated than Nature ever did – technically at least!

AT a time when the battle between capital and labour was at its most dramatic, it’s not difficult to interpret who Capek’s robots were symbolically representing. The destructiveness of the recent war, and the war to come, also presses in movingly:

Helena: I thought… if they [the robots] were like us, if they could understand us, that then they couldn’t possibly hate us so much… if only they were like people… just a little bit…

Domin: Oh Helena! Nobody could hate man as much as man!

Yet as the National Museums Scotland science curator Dr Tacye Phillipson pointed out to me, “it has always been technically challenging for scientific fact to catch up with the imagination of science fiction”.

The exhibition features many examples of Robbie-the-Robot-like clunksters from the 30s to the 60s, all flashing-bulb eyes and grasping claws. But none of the items here are “universal” robots (and certainly not the reflective “Adams and Eves” of Capek’s play).

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Cygan, a 1957 robot

None of them can adapt to any environment with as much flexibility as a human being. They are mostly very specifically designed – and, truth be told, very limited in their function.

Here you won’t be chilled by the prospect of your impending human uselessness. Instead, these humanoids will have you exulting in your own basic ability (or for that matter, your five-year-old’s) to turn a circular doorknob, or conduct basic conversations. Which is often considerably more than they can do.

The closer that robots try to get to the actual form and presence of humanity, the less impressive they become. One of the NMS exhibits is called Kodomoroid, a Japanese humanoid robot who can read the news (or indeed any text fed to it).

Yet it really is a poor show. In its white hospital robe, with its eyes flickering and mouth gulping like a fish, Kodomoroid looks more like it has severe personality disorders than a triumphant victor over humanity. Worse, with her call-centre headset plonked over her bobbed hair, she looks like she’s being put out to work while under this condition, too.

The human emotion she elicits – in this viewer, anyway – is not fear or intimidation, but pity and compassion.

It’s possible I’m reacting as a Westerner here, misreading its tentativeness. Japanese culture and religion has a strong philosophy of animism. This means that spirit is seen to reside in humans, animals and things. It’s the right relations between these elements that makes for an ethical life (or “rinri”).

So it’s easy to see where the soft ground for robots is in Japanese life – and how they could play their part in forging the bonds of society.

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Kodomoroid, a Japanese android who reads the news

It’s also worth admiring that, as a consequence, their robotics are aimed largely at human-centred care and service, rather than the military applications of America and Europe. Rather than the marauding raygunners of legend, the more impressive humanoid robots in the exhibition are the ones that try to sensitively fill that gap “between” themselves and us.

Another example. Caspar, looks like a standard kids’ raggedy-doll: the robotics give him awkward and obvious movements. But it turns out Caspar’s blandness is a boon to severely autistic children.

They’re often overwhelmed by the amount of information that humans in their environment send them. The robot reduces all that to some simple, obvious gestures.

The autistic kid can trigger these, via a keypad of symbols. By controlling their input, they can learn how to read these gestures in a wider social context.

WHEN I asked Dr Phillip-son what her favourite robots are in the exhib-ition, her second choice was RoboThespian. He/she/it has a routine where they pretend to be a stiff-bodied, Dalek-voiced robot from central casting.

RoboThespian then dissolves into a series of luvvie pronouncements and general flapping around. It’s closer to Derek Jacobi than Rutger Hauer.

But Tacye’s first robot choice is a 17th-century mechanical spider. “It’s so exquisitely designed, a marvel of precision engineering”, says the curator. “Yet I love the fact that all this effort has been put into something that’s just about scaring your friends, playing a prank on them.”

There’s a few things this preference highlights. One is that human-shaped robots may well be something of a dead-end for the sector – because the bar of keeping an erect human biped upright and moving might just be too high.

Why not simulate the spider, or the dog, or even the octopus, if you want to get anywhere near copying a flexible and adaptive organism?

You may have seen social media clips displaying the work of the Boston Dynamics robotics lab. It’s usually accompanied by phrases like “run for the hills!” or “I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords”.

What they’ve shown over the past few years is a progression of four-legged robots, gradually refining themselves.

The current version, called Uptown Spot, is something that looks like a black-and-yellow techno-whippet, but with a freakishly placed arm and hand where a head and neck would be.

And yes, as of autumn 2018, it was indeed able to open the handle of a lab door and shuffle through. Man the barricades! Pull the plug!

Boston Dynamics is like the tip of a giant iceberg of robotics research, funded by the military-industrial complexes of America and Europe. Unburdened by any neo-spiritual or humanistic considerations, their robot designs are based on the toughest criteria – victory or loss on the battlefield. We can gather something of what’s going on from the research prospectuses of US institutions like Darpa responsible for the development of military technology. And it’s that the stand-alone robot will be much less effective than human-machine hybrids.

Welcome to the cyborg soldier – with a direct link from brain to weapon, pumping with chemicals to improve cognition while reducing sleep, encased in exoskeletons that double or treble their strength.

It’s a tragedy of modern life that military research often breaks the ground for every other advance in the wider society. So it may well be the case that we should fear becoming cyborgs ourselves, more than we should worry about being replaced by singing and dancing humanoids.

At the very least the robot, in all of its shapes and sizes, is visibly “out there”. It scuttles across the floors of an Amazon warehouse; it flips burgers and tosses pizzas in the restaurants of the future. Even when it operates in warzones, its fatal mistakes will be on some drone’s video or databank.

Robots can be seen, harnessed, de- and re-programmed, deployed better, regulated in order to give us humans extra wealth and more free time.

And they can be tipped over from the back, probably, by a nimble-enough 21st-century luddite – if we think they’re overstepping the mark.

But take our FitBits sending our bodily stats to health insurers (public or private); or AIs reading our interactions so accurately they know us better than we know ourselves; or gene editing enabling the selection of traits in children and adults … The issue with all that cyborg technology is that it’s “in here”. It crosses the boundaries of our bodies; it tampers with our deepest sense of self; it opens up our bonnets, and intimately tweaks our human engineering.

How do we start to resist the spread of informational networks, insinuating themselves so easily into our own neuronal and biochemical networks? Where does the human “I” stop blending into the endless, cybernetic “we”? And who (or what) decides where the boundary is?

So, enjoy your museum full of shiny, goofy, slowly-improving humanoid robots. But Robbie – for all his whirring gears, arcs of plasma and bubble-jointed legs – turns out to be the very least of your problems with the future.

Robots, at the National Museum of Scotland, runs from Jan 18 to May 5 2019. More at https://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-scotland/whats-on/robots/