Friday, 19 September 2014
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The Engineer Q&A: domestic and humanoid robots

Your chance to ask our expert panel their views on the future of advanced robotic systems. 

The robots are coming. They’re already in our factories and creeping into our cars, but soon they’ll be in our homes as well, if the likes of Google and Dyson get their way. (Both firms have made recent investments in robotics research.) And these robots may even look something like us: just take a look at the droids being built and operated for the US government’s DARPA Robotics Challenge.

But what will these robots actually be able to do? How long will it be before they’re commonplace? And what dangers could they bring with them? Will people accept humanoid robots in their home or workplaces?

For our latest reader Q&A we want to hear your questions on the future of domestic and humanoid robots.

Answering your queries will be a panel of experts including:

  • Prof Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at Sheffield University and an outspoken commentator on the dangers of robotic warfare;
  • Rich Walker, managing director of one of the UK’s leading robotics firms, Shadow Robot Company, which produces state-of-the-art robotic hands;
  • Dr David Bisset, former head of robotics research at Dyson and now a consultant on autonomous system design;
  • Dr Chrisantha Fernando, lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, who builds robots to study the link between neuroscience and natural selection;

Use the comments box below to send us your questions and we’ll publish the answers in The Engineer magazine and website next month.

Readers' comments (10)

  • How important is AI safety?
    What unexpected, emergent AI behaviors have you personally witnessed?
    How does one safely invoke beneficial emergent AI behaviors?
    Is AI sentience a result or a thing?
    Is AI intelligence a yes/no, 1/0, or on a continuum?

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  • Robotics and AI are really in their infancy. What are your projected time frames for self awareness and strategies for protection of the creators (humans) ?

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  • Noel: what do you think are DARPA's intentions with the development of these robots.

    Will we have terminator robots in the next 10 years?

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  • And will they look like Arnold Schwarzenegger?

  • Sadly, the hype concerning AI is greater than the puny reality.
    The reassuring truth is that the software required to get a simple camera/CPU combo to recognize the difference between a banana and a bunch of grapes is larger and more complex than the operating system you are using to drive your browser PLUS your browser! And if the angle between the camera and the subject might change, expect the software to double in size and complexity.

    Software lags decades behind what is possible in electronics and we lack so many insights into doing, in rigid mathematics, what organic brains seemingly find naturally straightforward without recourse to maths in any form.

    The smartest computer program is less smart than the average amoeba!

    And while robots might look a little like creatures, in 2014 they lack the intellect to do more than the most basic of tasks or be directed like very expensive RC toys!

    So relax, the robot overlords aren't really on their way yet!

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  • My question is a simple one.
    Are we certain that the current model we have of the brain, namely one of neurons and synapses and dendrites etc. and therefore its parallel computational analogs, is correct given that mapping the brain pathways in real brain tissue yields so few insights and the fact that individuals are known to exist for whom hydrocephaly has robbed them of so much of the brain's 'necessary' white and grey matter YET they fully function on a par with 'normal' individuals with complete brain tissue?

    Given that these individuals are well document and some have less than 5% of 'normal' tissue yet exhibit seemingly few adverse problem-solving effects, are we missing something obvious and fundamentally in our understanding of the physical circuitry of brain tissue?

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  • One statement I hear repeatedly is that computers can only do what we tell them too. But of course a homing missile would not be much use if it only followed predefined directions! Advanced systems can base decisions on inputs from a live environment, collect data and evolve their own neural networks as they learn and apply new ways of recognising the world around them. But what happens when they take into account the very fact that they are, themselves, a factor in their environment? At what point can we say a system has a "Sense of Self"?

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  • AI is advancing rapidly, but, however good AI becomes, robots will continue to look and move like Daleks until we have better autonomous power and lighter, high torque actuators. What technologies are on the horizon which will transform the physical capabilities of robots?

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  • Do you think that an application could be engineered where it might be possible to combine nana technologies to help semi paralyzed patients to gain enough strength in muscle tissue that have been weakened due to bad surgery?

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  • The thing that I see is when we create something that is intelligent enough to understand what they are and what the environment around them is, will we have created a slave race?

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  • What are the key enablers that have made Dyson etc. now start to realistically consider commercialization? Is it new technologies now robust enough to roll out, a fall in costs of key elements, access to intellectual property, or something else?

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