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Robots and humans: when two societies meet

By Katie Griffiths, Young People's Programme Assistant at the British Science Association


Intelligent robots have the potential to change our lives and make an incredibly positive impact on society, Nick Hawes, Senior Lecturer in Intelligent Robotics at the University of Birmingham told the British Science Festival today, in the Lord Kelvin Award lecture. However, despite all that potential for the future, we are still facing huge challenges in bringing these intelligent robots to life.

Autonomous robots, with the ability to sense the environment, process information and react accordingly, will become more and more crucial to society, according to Dr Hawes, and one of the key motivators for this is a continuing change in demographic shift. As our population ages, greater and greater demands for care and financial support will be placed on our society. At some point in the future, we will simply run out of people who can provide care for the elderly and the very young. This is where robots could have one of the most beneficial effects on our lives: robots that can assist with caring for the elderly, monitoring their safety, and enabling them to live in their own homes for longer could revolutionise our future.

Then there are the Three D’s, the jobs that are too dull, dirty or dangerous for humans to want to do themselves. Dr Hawes pointed out that jobs like nuclear decommissioning are difficult for humans carry out quickly and safely, but that robots, trained to undertake tasks and hardened against radiation, could make jobs like this safer, quicker and easier all round. 

The big question, however, is if these autonomous ‘thinking’ robots are so essential, why don’t we have them yet? The main reason, according to Dr Hawes, is that humans are just so awesome! He explained that humans are incredibly flexible in their reasoning; they have an amazing ability to use their previous learning to interpret and navigate new situations. Teaching a robot to not just measure and observe the world, but to learn from it, process it, interpret it and adapt to take action based on these processes is incredibly complex.

Currently, robots work best when they can use predictable rules, like measuring distances and calculating geometry to park a car, for example. However, for a car to drive itself, it has to not only measure distances and respond to this information, but also understand the rules of the road, and predict how people might interpret them. This higher level of processing is incredibly difficult to achieve, according to Dr Hawes, and this is where his research is currently focussing, hoping to bring us closer and closer to a future where autonomous robots will be in a position to have a positive impact on all our lives, and make a real difference to society.


Ian Fleming's picture

I guess the key to the success of this is understanding that there will always be things that humans will do best - I'm not aware that robots can show true compassion for example - and therefore focussing the development of robots on those tasks that can be undertaken most effectively with the application of logic, precision, and consistency. Humans may make mistakes, but that does not make us any less awesome!

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