You, robot

Did you know that there are robots in the Iliad? There are: Hephaestus has "female servants made of gold", who "look like living servant girls, possessing minds, hearts with intelligence, vocal cords and strength". Pretty much everything you'd want from a servant made of gold.

The idea of lifelike machines crops up through literature, from the Jewish myth of the golem to Hans Christian Andersen's artificial nightingale with jewelled plumage. The word "robot", however, was first introduced to the public 91 years ago by the Czech playwright Karel Capek (it means "serf").

To celebrate, the Science Museum in London is offering a month-long celebration of robots, beginning with an event that brought together more than 20 specimens to show how diverse the field is. "There are ten million robots worldwide," says Paulina Latham of the European Union National Institutes for Culture, which organised the show - so we're now more excited than terrified by them. "There used to be a fear of technology - this idea that it was humans v technology - but now we live with so many in our everyday lives."

Stuart Umbo from the museum agrees. "Robots have been used for a while in manufacturing, in surgery - but within five to ten years they'll become much more prominent in our homes."

Valley of the dolls

One of the keys to making us accept robots is to negotiate the "uncanny valley". The basic principle is this: we like human faces and find them easy to interact with and "read". So, making a robot like a human - with expressions, a bipedal body and so on - is a good idea. But there comes a point where the likeness is very good but not perfect, when we find robots deeply unsettling. The robot has fallen into the uncanny valley. The solution is to choose the elements of humanity to replicate or stylise the robot.

The latter is the case with Kaspar, a doll developed by the University of Hertfordshire to help children with autism learn to communicate. I find its large, wobbly head a bit off-putting but its roboticist assures me that youngsters respond better to its cartoonish proportions. They happily tickle Kaspar or tweak his nose and he responds with easily readable - and, crucially, predictable - body language.

The university is now raising £1m to build 30 more Kaspars for specialist schools across the UK.Perhaps the most intriguing robot at the Science Museum, however, was the iCub - a glossy, white, child-sized automaton with delicate features and dextrous hands. It can focus on an object and then reach out and grasp it. It sounds simple - a human toddler can do this, after all - but involves up to 53 motors, a motion-tracking camera and a range of accelerometers and gyroscopes, so the robot knows where its fingers are and how they're moving.

The iCub's big eyes and slow blinks make it undeniably cute and it "learns", progressing from round balls to more complex 3D shapes. Bad luck, Rover - this would make a much better pet.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war