Imitation of Life

Recently, I was struck by an extraordinary Roman sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. If anything comes close to a likeness of the human, and by extension, a likeness of life, I think it has to be this.

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The devious satyr is unsettling in his beauty—even uncanny. Arrested in this one pose, mangled, mounted in sterile space, he still seems capable of taking a breath, of magically coming to life, like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.

Uncanny was also the first word that came to mind when I watched a video of BigDog, Boston Dynamic’s robotic animal, a machine eerily animal and eerily not so.

Sculpture and robotics are both technologies, both imitative arts. Where sculpture was perfected in antiquity, robotics is being perfected now. In both, there seems to be the potential for life to leap from objects, regardless of purpose and whether those objects move or remain still.

Maybe, as so many theorists predict, robots like BigDog will someday come to life. Maybe they never will, or maybe they already have, and will only grow more alive, through technology—which is to say, through imagination.