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Working with robots

Working with robots

Q+A with Dr. Nick Hawes, Senior Lecturer at the School of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham.


Q: Tell us about you, and what you do.

I'm a Senior Lecturer in the School of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham. This means I spend my time either working as scientist doing research with robots or teaching students about Artificial Intelligence (AI) or programming robots to be autonomous (which means to be able to do things for themselves). I also spend a bit of my time talking to the public about autonomous robots, how they work and what they might do in the future.

Q: How would you describe the work you’re doing with robots.

I'm interested in how we can use techniques from the field of AI to enable robots to be able to make decisions for themselves. AI is a field that studies how computer programmes can solve problems in a variety of ways, for example by searching for different alternatives (like Google Maps finding you a route home) or by learning to recognise patterns (e..g the bit of the camera on your phone that can recognise faces to focus on). Robots in the real world (e.g. not bolted down in factories) need to be able to solve a huge number of problems to be useful in our daily lives (helping us with the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs we'd like to automate) and to cope with the sheer variety of the world we live in. This last point is really important: computer programmes work really well when they know exactly the input they're going to receive, but this just isn't possible for a robot.

Q: Is working with robots your only job?

It's just the research and the teaching, but there's a huge amount of variety in the work, plus as an academic I get to really define my own work, so I'm never bored.

Q: Any plans ahead for future development of your work with robots?

Yes, lots! For the next three years we will be working on our security robot Bob and trying to enable him to work for longer and longer without any expert human support. This year we were aiming for 15 days, but by 2017 he should run for 120 days in a normal office, patrolling and looking out for security problems. We're also soon going to start a problem to allow robots to learn about their worlds in a similar way to how many humans do nowadays: by searching the web for things they don't understand. We're also going to also spend a lot of time working out how humans can work with and control a range or robots, as we want them to start being really useful, and usable, in the near future.


Q: Who is your favourite robot and why?

I prefer Bob to Nao as he has more sensors and processing power, better battery life, and doesn't fall over (although ask me one day to tell you about his friend Henry who fell down the stairs...). But, like a parent, you can't really have a favourite, you just want to work hard to help all your charges to get the most out of their experiences.

Q: Is it the first time you’re going to take part in the Festival?

No, I was honoured to be selected to give the Lord Kelvin Award Lecture in Newcastle in 2013. This was a lecture about how hard it is make robots that are intelligent and autonomous, but why we want to do it anyway.


You can meet Nick, and all of his robots, at the Festival this year! Book now, as space is limited.

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