Robots That Care (Radio 4)

Our attitude towards robots is complicated.

A programme about advances in the design of small robots touchingly underscored the lengths that we will go to in order to ensure that they appear human (26 September, 11am). I say "touchingly", because there was sustained awe here, as though, ever since the animatronic Maria first stood up in 1927 and blinked languidly in Metropolis, we have remained caught up in some innocent intake of breath.

One expert said: "Robots can spend all day and night working on gene sequencing - but a robot that can safely cross the street on its own is impossible to find." Nonetheless, an incredible amount of work has gone into the detailing of some robots' eyelashes and making small movements in the chest area to suggest breathing. Robot designers now take advice from Hollywood about the most appealing kind of eyebrows or the use of surgical tubing for lips.

One new kind of robot - created initially to appeal to autistic children - has 65 motors ­controlling its facial expressions and does a special surprised look/drawing-back-of-the-head combo, as if to imply that you're getting rather too close. It wears a baseball cap and shirt but its wrists and neck remain uncovered, ensuring that we all know that this is still a creature entirely innocent of antenatal care. "A point comes where they become too human [and] they unnerve and even disgust us," said one researcher from the University of Southern California.

This notion of disgust is intriguing. Oh, the tediousness of watching anything's repeated attempts to join in. One couldn't help but picture the robot's mechanised arms, fundamentally wrong - somehow as feeble as bone - inside baggy cardigan sleeves, working a pair of bacon scissors in some kitchen in St John's Wood. Owner: "That is the stuff reared by the Prince of Wales, isn't it, Jeeves?"

Someone gave a rather heartbreaking monologue. "I say I design robots and people say, 'Oh, wow! That's so cool! Can they do this or that?' I say: 'No. Not really. Sometimes. If the context is right. In a lab. And if the sunlight is not in its eyes . . .' And, you know, the thing is, I just have some sort of feeling that we are doing something fundamentally wrong with robots. Only I couldn't say what it is . . ."

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?