What does a small clay figurine from 2500 BC have in common with a robot? Would you feel differently about this blog post if you discovered that the mind behind it was artificial? Is the end point of online dating actually a perfectly matched AI mate?

These are some of the questions posed by ‘AI: More than human’, an impressive exhibition in the Barbican Centre, which is both a hugely informative history of artificial intelligence and a meditation on the creative processes that drive humans to mimic life, whether in art or in robotics.

As I walk into the exhibition, I see a case which appears to contain a robotic head – think early era Doctor Who – but on closer examination I discover that it is a painted plaster mask from an ancient Egyptian mummy. The exhibition takes in early religion and nineteenth century gothic, among other things, before moving on to consider in more detail the history of machine learning, neural networks and the various applications of AI. In doing this, it invites us to see artificial intelligence as the inheritor of the age old human fascination with creating artificial human beings, whether through ‘magic, science, religion or illusion’.

As I move through the dark space, in which the installations sit in their own pockets of bright light, I feel I am walking through a temple to human progress, watching as different versions of the future slip away into the past. The impression is compounded by the location of the exhibition, deep in the heart of the Barbican Centre, itself a monument to the fading futurism of a different era.

At a time when we grapple on a daily basis with the huge and exciting possibilities of new technology, and the potential downsides, from too much screen time to data wars, there is something refreshing about this exhibition and the tantalising idea that the technology behind the devices we use on a daily basis sits on a continuum with those ancient hand-modelled clay figures.

To complete the experience, another installation has been erected in the foyer – a free standing bar with two pristine white robotic arms, ready and willing to mix me a cocktail of my choosing while I mull over what I’ve seen.

AI: More than Human runs at the Barbican Centre until 26 August 2019.