Under the skin

"Animals Inside Out" at the Natural History Museum.

Just behind the gigantic cast of a Diplodocus, which dominates the Natural History Museum’s entrance hall, is a gruesome example of the latest innovation in preservation: plastination. A camel, stomach exposed and a tri-section of its head visible demonstrates the process developed by Dr. Gunther von Hagen.

Following in the footsteps of Body Worlds, Hagen’s hugely successful and contentious exhibition, Animals Inside Out sees his team apply the same technique to some of the world’s largest creatures capturing their anatomy in fine detail. The process of plastination involves extracting all the water and fatty tissue from the animal before replacing them with polymers in a vacuum. This revolutionary method of preservation was invented by Hagen in 1977. However, it wasn’t possible to preserve larger specimens until the early 1990s. The process prevents the decay of the body and provides a fascinating insight into the anatomical workings of each specimen.

The most striking example of this takes the form of a large porbeagle shark. Having had its skin removed and colored liquid resin injected into the main arterial network, this fear-inspring predator is reduced to an intricate network of blood vessels. Floating, seemingly weightlessly, the delicate system of interweaving capillaries seems almost impossible, the crimson resin creating a luminous effect that reinforces its unreal aspect.

Though Animals Inside Out is designed to be factual, it’s emphasis on the biological and physiological, it is difficult not be distracted by its dazzling and often stomach-turning visuals.

Once you get used to the grisly spectacle of skinned animals, their insides take on a perverse kind of beauty. Indeed, where plastination is at its most impressive is in its preservation of the internal organs. The hare’s brain appears like a tiny, purple jewel; the cat’s brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves, which we are told “give it the capability to react swiftly and with extraordinary precision”, sprawl across their case like creeping vines. There is something spectacular even in the towering giraffe whose body is sliced into thin cross sections allowing us to see its many vertebrae. Likewise, the elephant, which, weighing in at four tonnes is the biggest single specimen displayed in the museum, is remarkable if only due to its vast scale.

Despite their beauty, there is something unsettling about being surrounded by real animal specimens rather than models. Undoubtedly less macabre than Body Worlds, Hagen does not hesitate to remind his visitors that these creatures were living things; a foal frollicks with its plastinated stomach, digestive tract and other internal organs suspended next to it, a bull rears displaying its complex layers of muscle. Perhaps this is why the curators seem at pain to remind us that, "none of the animals in the exhibition have been killed for the purposes of plastination" and that "the Museum has undertaken due diligence to ensure that all the specimens comply with best collections practice". Nonetheless, some may argue that there is something distasteful about standing his skinless sheep, its intestines, liver and stomach revealed, on a sheepskin rug.

Animals Inside Out is on display at the Natural History Museum until 16 September.

Porbeagle Shark, Photo: Natural History Museum
GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution