Mention robots to someone and you are likely to conjure up references to sci-fi film and TV. Dr Who’s dreaded daleks proclaiming they are about to ‘EXTERMINATE, EXTERMINATE’ in their threatening robot voices are perhaps the most famous of all. Such portrayals of robots in popular culture as threatening, scary and generally unwelcome have built up a discourse amongst many who see the ever advancing capabilities of robots as a cause for concern. Should we really be concerned or should we focus on the positive opportunities that robot assistance to humans may present?
Jon Timmis, a Professor in the Department of Electronics at the University of York addressed this topic in a talk at Skeptics on the Fringe on 6 August. Jon’s work ranges from helping experimental immunologists develop computer models so they can design better intervention approaches for drugs, to improving the fault-tolerance of swarm systems.
Jon charted the history of robot development and design highlighting many of the difficulties that have been overcome, as well as those still to be mastered. The emphasis of Jon’s talk was that robot design and programming is extremely complicated and things that humans take for granted, such as negotiating a flight of stairs, can still prove a real challenge for robots. Jon showed several interesting and funny videos, from Honda’s ASIMO humanoid robot tumbling down stairs, to a swarm of robots dragging a roboticist’s daughter by her clothes across a laboratory floor. Particularly well received by the audience were some small swarm robots and a robo-man, which even managed a few press-ups on the stage floor before collapsing (though presumably not from tiredness). There robots were then passed around the audience for a closer look.
As for the future, Jon highlighted that robots are increasingly becoming part of our lives. From cars that park and brake themselves, to airliners that (mostly) fly themselves, we are benefiting from robots often without even realizing it. Drones for military and law enforcement purposes are already a controversial issue and their usage is only likely to carry on increasing. But Jon did emphasize the huge challenges still to be overcome before robots could have anything like the capability of humans in terms of judging situations and making decisions.
Questions from the audience covered security and privacy concerns, as well as the practicalities such as power supply, battery life and reliability (as demonstrated by the rather short demonstration of the robo-man). Do we have reasons to be scared of robots? Certainly not any time soon…
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