Implausible though it may seem, we may in the future be ruled by descendants of Seven Dwarfs, according to Professor Kevin Warwick of the University of Reading’s cybernetics department. The Seven Dwarfs are a group of robots developed at the University that not only learn to navigate obstacles using ultrasound sensors as their `eyes’, but interact via infrared, passing information between each other. They can, therefore, learn from each other and show group behaviour.

In an experiment at the end of last year, one of Professor Warwick’s robots used the Internet to programme a robot in the United States without human intervention, a world first. The robot in Britain taught the US robot how to determine its position relative to other objects using its ultrasound sensors. The robot was then able to learn by trial and error using its own on-board microprocessor.

Professor Warwick has described some of his work with robots in his book, March of the Machines – why the new race of robots will rule the world. He estimates that in the early part of the next century computational power will be greater than that of the human brain. Advancements in robotics, particularly in optical and biological systems will speed up the ability of intelligent machines to move, operate and be effective in everyday life. Not only will robots be more intelligent than humans, they will also be faster, more reliable, quicker to learn and more robust.

Published by Century at a price of £16.99, the book should be interesting reading for machine designers and anybody else who doesn’t find the thought of a world ruled by six inch robots rather depressing. On the other hand, perhaps this race of robots race will be bright enough to cut research spending on cloning sheep on the basis that there never was much difference between individual sheep at the best of times.