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"Robots: Evolution of a Cultural Icon," the exhibit currently at the Boise Art Museum, highlights one of the great disconnects between cultural representation and reality, in that the artistic and literary depictions of robots as sentient humanoids are so far divorced from the far more common reality that they are simply a motorized welder or drill press, perhaps that remote controlled car of a trash can for sale at The Sharper Image.

The irony of course, is the term and concept of robots, is a purely literary invention of Czech playwright Karel Capek, in his play, Rossum's Universal Robots, in which artificial humans used for labor learn to think for themselves, and eventually rebel. The term robot, is derived from robota, which literally meant "serf labor."

And as dangerous as it can be to distort reality through art and storytelling, this cultural paradigm has done more than just sensationalize. It has allowed artists to address contentious hot button issues otherwise untouchable, by divorcing them from what most people see as a literal context. Class, race and the nature of humanity are explored extensively in robot lore, in everything from the character of Data on Star Trek, to the Animatrix faux-documentary, The Rise of the Robot Empire. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica was practically a four-season metaphor for the war on terror, in which humanity struggled to keep its values in the face of total war with an invisible enemy.

But the most interesting thing of all about robot lore is that by addressing such issues in a detached manner, it has actually managed to frame crucial debates about ethics and human rights.

The three rules of robotics that Issac Asimov created for his collection of short stories, I Robot, are now guiding principles that researchers in genetics and robotics debate vigorously and law-makers must eventually ponder.

Not to mention Japanese brothel patrons.

A chance for arts lovers to see how imagined concepts have tracked over time and thereby influenced development of real concepts is a great way to spend an afternoon.

The exhibit will continue to run through Sunday, May 16.