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Thanks to Hollywood, robots are as much fixtures of pop-culture as vampires, aliens and things that go bump in the night.

From the comic relief of the Star Wars droids to the hulking, malevolent cyborgs of the Terminator films, robots have been invoked to thrill, entertain and fire our imaginations. However, as a new exhibition, Robotville, opening on Thursday at London’s Science Museum, attests, advances in the field of robotics have blurred the line between science and fiction. As robots become increasingly sophisticated and interactive, their applications increase and the questions about the relationship between man and machine demand ever more serious consideration.

“Robotville will communicate the current state of play – where everything is at when it comes to robot structures, robot abilities and robot appearances,” claims Nick Hawes, a lecturer in artificial intelligence and programming at the University of Birmingham. Some of Hawes’s recent work will be on show at the exhibition – he helped build Dora, a robot able to map an area and then, if in a home, for instance, locate and fetch familiar items.

“If Dora goes into a room and finds a kettle, she will label the room a kitchen. If you then ask her to go and fetch a box of cornflakes, she will be programmed to know that the cornflakes are likely to be in the same room as a kettle, and when she gets there, she will work out what kind of areas are likely to hold the cornflakes,” Hawes explains. “And, provided she’s been shown a 3D model of the box, she’ll then be able to recognise it.”

Unfortunately for roboticists, though, fiction-writers and film-makers have already set the bar high – it must be a source of constant bemusement that their work, undoubtedly cutting-edge, is still about 100 years behind people’s imaginations. While Hawes predicts that, within certain parameters, robots will become more and more useful, he concedes that cyborg bounty hunters are unlikely.

“At the moment, you’ve got special-purpose robots who can do one thing. But I think there will be an integration of those technologies. I can imagine robots doing menial, automated tasks in prisons, hospitals, hotels – places where there are a consistent set of requests,” he says. “But robots that can do everything are a long way off. Humans have all this natural understanding, common sense. And one of our challenges is robot perception, getting it to see objects and interpret what they are. So developing a humanoid robot, one that can go upstairs or open a door or even identify and pick up a glass it hasn’t seen before is going to be hard.”

Professor Alan Winfield, an expert in electrical engineering at UWE Bristol, agrees, although he insists startling advancements have been made in robots’ interactivity, in their ability to process and respond to cues.

“It’s wrong to imagine humanoid robots like C-3PO – we won’t have that,” Winfield says. “But what we will have are devices that can clean, do the gardening and, once they become increasingly sophisticated, maybe prepare food.

“One area that really excites me is the development of human and robot interaction – there are a number of exhibits at Robotville that will show how this is starting to occur more naturally. Some of the most exciting work is happening in the area of communication, making it so robots can understand not just human speech but gestures, expressions and body language as well.”

Even though walking, talking, camp android butlers are a bridge too far, Winfield insists robotics will come to fundamentally alter some aspects of how we live and work. He cites transport as an area where robotics could have the most seismic implications.

“Most people already have washing machines and some would have robot vacuum cleaners, but we probably don’t think of them as robots. And I think that, in 10, 15 or even 20 years, we’ll have far more automated transport – whole metro systems,” he says. “I think we’re very close to having driverless cars already – the main problems to do with those are insurance and social acceptance. I think that, once we have them, we won’t necessarily call them robots.”

As with any emerging technology, society will be confronted with ethical questions about the deployment of robots. For Winfield, there are two distinct grey areas that, given the trajectory of innovation and the speed at which horizons are expanding, may need to be addressed sooner than many expect. The first is in healthcare, where robots could be used to replace humans in some capacities. It would be, Winfield insists, a step in the wrong direction – a misuse of the technology and a disservice to human patients.

“When robots are used to care for the vulnerable or the elderly or children – some roboticists are worried about robots being used as substitutes for people in those roles,” Winfield says. “Robots can be very useful in therapeutic roles, particularly with autistic children, for example, but they should not replace that human contact – they should be an addition. Society needs to avoid that temptation.”

Winfield’s other concern resides at the other end of the spectrum. There is a symmetry here – we should not, he insists, use robots as proxies to care, nor to kill.

“We’re already seeing the increased weaponisation of robots,” he says. “Do we think that’s a good thing?

“I think it’s a path we should not go down – we should not put guns on robots. The decision to pull the trigger is a huge responsibility. It’s one we give to our service-people and robots simply aren’t smart enough and never will be. They do not have the sensory sophistication or artificial intelligence to make that kind of decision. That’s partly a technical argument but it’s also a moral one – should we have robots to fight our wars for us?”

To avoid the front lines, maybe Dora should stick to fetching boxes of cornflakes for a few years yet.


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Robots in London: New exhibition explores world of robotics
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