Of EPSRC's 111 research areas, Robotics and AI Technologies are perhaps the two which the general public feel they know the most about. After all, they have the opportunity to experience the technology in their very living rooms: from a new series of "Westworld" to re-runs of "Star Trek", the imagined world of robotics and AI is never far away.
Indeed, robotics and science fiction have been intertwined from the very start. The word "robot" itself has its origins in the Czech play "Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.)" by Karel Čapek, first produced in 1921. Twenty years later, writer Isaac Asimov is credited with coining the term "robotics", and his Principles of Robotics are still looked to for guidance. Indeed, they even influenced the outputs from the 2010 AHRC/EPSRC Robotics Retreat, which used a similar format to suggest how the designers, builders, and users of robots could consider the development of these new tools.
Friend or foe?
Beyond the realms of literature, it is perhaps the silver screen that has had the greatest influence on public imagination. 2017 marks forty years since George Lucas introduced the world to two friendly androids in the form of C-3PO and R2-D2, and the alphabet soup continues with the recent addition of BB-8 to the "Star Wars" stable. Robots as humanity's helper is perhaps best exemplified in children's animation: the Jetsons had Rosie the Robot, Pixar built an entire movie around the eponymous Wall-E, and "The Iron Giant" tells the classic story of a boy and his robot from outer space.
Yet there's the other end of the spectrum of course. The very first robotic rebellion in "R.U.R." created the template for what followed. The worst fears are embodied in the Terminator and its kin: a killing machine that cannot be reasoned with and which seeks the end of the human race. From 'Ultron', Tony Stark's creation in "The Avengers" to the Cylons of "Battlestar Galactica", robots and devices powered with artificial intelligence are shown as an enemy bent on conquering all in their path. The spectre of dozens of such films lingers in popular consciousness, and perhaps blinds us to the very real threat of such technology: humans who will exploit it. The recent ransomware cyberattacks on the NHS are perhaps the latest example of how technology is only as strong as its creators.
For robotics researchers, this century in the spotlight of popular culture has become a double-edged sword. While there is a great degree of interest in their work, they are also in the unenviable position of taking questions as to whether the latest summer blockbuster could come to pass. It is necessary to move beyond movie magic and focus on the actual science and innovation, to separate science fact from science fiction.
For example, the model of a single humanoid robot that can do everything, whether C-3PO or the synths of "Humans", is flawed. The robots of the future will be specialists, able to do the one thing they're programmed for very well. In fact, they're already here: iRobot's popular Roomba vacuum cleaner can hoover floors (and, on occasion, give rides to pets), but it cannot make you a cup of tea. The victory of Google's AlphaGo over Lee Sedol is a fantastic example of machine learning, but it is an algorithm that can only play Go.
Likewise the common film and television design of a bipedal robot that mimics human activities is ineffective. If you wanted a robot that will clean dishes, would you design such a humanoid system... or a dishwasher?
Celebrating UK Robotics Research
Yet it cannot be denied that science fiction has long helped propel imagination to reality. It is not difficult to see the connection between Jules Verne's "Nautilus" exploring the oceans' depths in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" to NERC's "Boaty McBoatface" and the entire fleet of AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles). This week the EPSRC UK Robotics and Autonomous System Network will be celebrating the amazing real world of robotics activities taking place here in the UK. Join us to look beyond the hype with a great series of articles by leading researchers.