Raindrops on Robots and Whiskers . . .

October 8, 2012

I spent yesterday evening listening to Professor Alan Winfield of the {Bristol Robotics Laboratory: www.brl.ac.uk} talk about robots. He is Professor of Electronic Engineering and Director of the Science Communication Unit at UWE. Attendance was partly in preparation for a special issue on the topic that is being planned (see below).

My post title is with a nod to Maria in the Sound of Music, partly because we not only had raindrops (albeit outside) but we had whiskers on kittens (sorry, whiskers on robots – no {i}really{/i}), and, in an old piece of film of what was claimed to be a robotic tortoise, something that looked remarkably like a bright(ish) copper kettle moving ‘intelligently’ around the floor. The nod to Maria also arises because robots are clearly one of Alan Winfield’s Favourite Things.

I went to the talk with as open a mind as I can usually muster but with some cynicism, especially about the line between robotics and automation. For example, I am not convinced that robots built my car – I think that is structured automation and that applied ‘intelligence’ is a key requirement for a robot. But no doubt Professor Winfield’s new book ({Robotics – A Very Short Introduction: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199695980.do}) will enlighten me on the drawing of the line. What is certain is that the developments outlined by Alan Winfield go well beyond the realm of automation and that there is real innovation (in what looks like a fun environment) in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. Indeed, I have to give Professor Winfield extra points. He gave his talk in Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, with its very impressive (and surprising) array of 20th century art, and bravely chose to have a large painting of three bulls looming over his shoulder. Yet he did not allow me any opportunity to make the obvious joke – very impressive.

I left the talk thinking and having been mulling over some of its content since despite my febrile condition (send Lemsip) and that is a great compliment to any speaker. It is not my intention to tell you now about the 8 dead flies, urinetricity or BERTL’s uncanny ability to look as though it is listening and understanding when the words are going over its head (BERTL may not be ready for work but he is clearly ready for marriage). But I do want to trail a series of articles we will be running in the Spring on the topic of robotics, ethics and law. We already have a number of authors lined up (Lilian Edwards, Lachlan Urquhart, Catherine Easton and (I hope) Professor Winfield himself), but I am happy to hear from others. Do please get in touch.

It is hard not to feel uncomfortable about applying legal rules, or ethics, in this area because almost all the illustrations one moves towards are from science fiction. One has to shake off that restraint (while not going mad, accepting that not every aspect of Star Trek will come to pass).

My puzzle for today arises from the part of the talk that dealt with the creation of Symbiotic Evolutionary Robot Organisms. These are envisaged to swarm and act like cells in a multicell organism but are also expected to evolve (we are talking artificial evolution here – think cocker spaniels not survival of the fittest). It is the interface between true artificial intelligence and controlled evolution that troubles me in the very long term, perhaps because of a very stubborn cocker spaniel of my acquaintance. In the shorter term, distinguishing between ethical robots and robots programmed without an ethics chip troubles me too – God knows we cannot tell the good from the bad in people and we’ve been trying for a long time.

All in all, I cannot wait for the special issue. Robotics just beats the EU Data Protection Reforms for interest by a nose (and several miles).