The robots are coming ... to make life easier

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It's the future we've been told about since we were kids, and one Edinburgh scientist says it's closer that we think

IT'S the office slacker's dream. Due in a boring meeting when you'd rather be at home with your feet up?

Then why not send your robotic body double while you participate by remote control?

It might sound like a mundane version of the movie Avatar, but the scenario is one of the tempting glimpses of the future provided by robotics staff at Edinburgh University's Institute of Perception, Action and Behaviour.

From car production lines to Honda's walking, running humanoid, Asimo, robots have come a long way in a short time.

And while the prospect of a fleet of robotic butlers tending to our every whim is still a distant dream, they do have the potential to transform our lives.

At this year's Science Festival some of the latest developments have been shown off by the University's Professor of Robotics, Dr Sethu Vijayakumar. In The Road To RoboCup sessions, he demonstrated the footballing prowess of three Nao robots, which have taken part in the annual RoboCup – part of a long-term worldwide project to develop robot soccer players capable of beating a human World Cup team.

But the game wasn't just for fun. Events such as this engage the enthusiasm of the next generation of roboticists, and also help advance the field, Sethu says: "RoboCup may seem like big boys with toys, but in trying to solve the hard problems like balance, real-time control and reactions, we've advanced technology which can be used in the areas such as prosthetics. In some ways it's like the Moon landing – maybe we didn't find anything interesting on the Moon, but it pushed us towards developing technology that can be used in many areas."

Today, Sethu and his colleague Professor Dave Perrett will give a presentation titled The Uncanny Valley, where they explore our relationship with increasingly human-looking robots.

He explains: "There's lots of work, especially coming out of Tokyo, where they specialise in creating emotive robots, so they've got skin made of silicone which looks like human skin, even with ingrowing hairs and enlarged pores. They use human hair and to animate a face like that takes about 50 to 60 motors, so there's a lot of work in getting robots to look and behave at least facially like a human."

But robots which can raise an eyebrow or crack a smile give us the heebie-jeebies, apparently: "You would think that if you made the robots closer to human- looking people would accept it more, and initially, yes. But then you reach a stage when it becomes uncannily close to a human, and then it goes downhill and people reject it."

Old-school sci-fi "robots" like Dr Who's Cybermen might have been intent on taking over the world, but at least we could tell by their clunky walks that they were not quite "real".

Sethu says: "Typically in early movies you had people dressing up as robots and trying to move like robots, and now we're putting all this effort into making them move like humans – and when they see it, people say 'Ooh, I don't know about that'."

But while there have been huge advances in scientists' ability to make humanoid robots, that is not the only aim of robotics.

Just as significant are the leaps and bounds in the creation of functional robots which don't look human, but can carry out specialised tasks.

Sethu says: "There are lots of open challenges that we feel robots are capable of solving. We have an ageing society and we could help people be slightly more self-dependent to keep them from going to care homes. If there's a technology which makes them even 10 to 20 per cent more independent, that creates a big morale boost. So things like lifting bags of shopping, for example. Or for people who have some disability, like strokes or tremors, then it would be things where you have an external skeleton or things that get attached to the body which help in stabilising their motion, or taking over parts of their mobility." He says there has been a big shift in recent years towards creating robots that can "think" for themselves, dealing with new situations and making decisions for themselves: "I think the robots of the past were mostly working in factories – welding, packaging, heavy industry like steel. The main task of the robot was to repeat things reliably again and again and again. Whereas now we're changing that and saying we not only want robots to be reliable and fast but we want them to be able to interact with humans in society.

"There's also the emotional side of things so creating machines that can act as companions, help you spend time, improve your knowledge and keep you sharp. So robots have a role in social set-ups, for example, pet robots.

"And autistic children are perceived to be less socially engaged, but there have been studies where if you replace another child with a robot and make this robot human-like, they can respond and can practice their social skills."

And then there's the chance to opt out of meetings: "One of the areas of robotics which is promising is what people call telepresence. One of the ways you can be greener is by travelling less. If I have to go and travel to attend a meeting, I could have my double, say, in Tokyo and we could have me sensing everything that robot senses, enabling you to be thousands of miles away and feel as if you're there. It's important for me, but it's more important for the others, because they would feel some natural interaction."

But as robots start interacting more closely with humans, safety becomes increasingly important. After manipulating a large blue robotic arm, Sethu says casually: "That's a very, very powerful robot. If it didn't have proper restraints, it could rip my arm off."

So robots are learning to make their own decisions and are capable of pulling humans limb from limb. Should we be afraid?

It is down to the scientists, he says, to make sure that we don't find ourselves at the mercy of destructive robots: "It's about the right level of controls. You certainly have to control for the worst-case scenario: If you don't equip a robot with wheels, it can't go out and do stuff. If you make a hard cut-off in terms of the power it can generate at every joint, then it can't exert too much power.

"But it's an interesting dilemma. We want machines and robots to be able to adapt on their own but if they started making decisions for themselves, can they ever make decisions that are potentially dangerous? There is a potential for that, so we need upper bounds on what actions they can take. It's good to be cautious on those fronts, but there's no need to be paranoid about it."

The Uncanny Valley takes place at 6:30pm tonight at Inspace, University of Edinburgh


THE word robot was coined in 1920 by Czech writer Karel Capek in his play R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots), set in a robot-making factory in which the robots rebel - and eventually take over the world. Since then, they have been a sci-fi staple. Favourites include:

&#149 Star Wars' metallic buddies, C-3PO and R2-D2, pictured above.

&#149 Futuristic crimefighter RoboCop.

&#149 Eighties' kids show favourite, Metal Mickey.

&#149 Miserable mastermind Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

&#149 The Doctor's trusty sidekick, K9.

&#149 Bender from Futurama.

&#149 WALL-E, the robotic dustman-with-a-heart in the hit Pixar movie.