Sunday, March 22, 2009

Aye, robot

Japan’s female catwalk robot is just the tip of the iceberg ... in the future, robots will fight our wars and tuck us up in bed. Edd McCracken talks to the Scots academics working to bring automatics to the people

WHEN THE HRP-4C was unveiled in Japan last Monday as the world's first female catwalk robot, it looked impressive enough. And then it moved. With all the grace of someone who sat in something nasty, it ensured that the science-fiction dream of humanoid robots in society remained firmly rooted in films like Short Circuit, Blade Runner, and WALL-E.

But scientists in Edinburgh and Aberdeen are working hard to change that. If robots get their looks from Japan, they could potentially get their brains from Scotland.

Both Edinburgh University and Robert Gordon University are world leaders in developing artificial intelligence for robots, creating software that will allow machines to learn and evolve.

Scientists at both institutions claim that smart robots will be vital parts of our lives in 10 years' time. A robot-free future is not an option.

"The aim is to have robots integrated into society in the future, there is no doubt about that," said Sethu Vijayakumar, professor of robotics and director of the Institute of Perception, Action and Behaviour at the University of Edinburgh. "In three or four years' time, we will have the technology to build a robot that would be a companion for the elderly, for example."

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has said that the robotic industry is "developing in much the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago". Costs are expected to come down, the hardware to become more compact, and the machines to become commonplace. South Korea has stated its intention to have a robot in every home by 2019.

According to Vijayakumar, within the next decade there will be commercially available robots doing specific tasks. The first is likely to be in aiding the mobility of the infirm. Robots will also undertake dirty and dangerous jobs that humans would baulk at, such as working in nuclear power plants and going into crumbling buildings after natural disasters.

Not far beyond that, robots will replace soldiers on the front line of battle, teach children foreign languages at school, help in surgery. Robots, it seems, will fight our battles, clean our homes, and give us a hug at the end of the day.

In Edinburgh, where one of the first smart robots, Freddy, was built in 1973, Vijayakumar and his team are working on solving one of the biggest obstacles to the creation of a fully autonomous, multi-purpose robot: how to give it the ability to learn. "We do not want to pre-programme everything, but we want to allow it to learn while watching humans and observing, like how we teach kids how to play tennis," he said.

Robert Gordon University is the world leader in developing software that will allow robots to "evolve". Last month, researchers revealed a robot brain that could adapt to a changed environment. The equivalent in nature, of creatures evolving from amphibians to mammals, took millions of years. The robot brain repeated the trick in a matter of hours. "Computers are a lot faster than nature is," said Chris MacLeod, director of research in the university's school of engineering. "It can evolve from something that can do very little, like move, to something that can do something useful very quickly."

Scientists say we will definitely see an adaptable, teachable, multi-purpose version of the HRP-4C, but not for another 25 years. One thing we won't see, thankfully, is the machines taking over. A robot apocalypse will remain within the realms of The Terminator films, insist experts. "The biggest problem you will have with them, is you may trip over them," said Professor Chris Melhuish, from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, the UK's largest robotics centre. "We are spending huge amounts of effort creating robots that will be massively helpful in the future, so I get very cross when people start talking about robots taking over the world."

For robots to become "self-aware" they need to replicate the human brain, and its 100 billion brain cells, "which is more than the number of stars in our galaxy", added MacLeod. "We will get nowhere near that level of complexity in our lifetime."

No comments:

Post a Comment