UK researchers pioneer development of robotic bureaucrats

Engineers at the UK’s Robotics Research Institute (RRI) have received a £60 million grant to develop intelligent robots that could dramatically reduce the operating costs of local authorities and even central government.

Part of the larger European-funded RoBureauCrat initiative, the aim of the group’s DeMocRAcy (Decision making robotic agents) project is to investigate the development of systems that could bring the benefits of automation to the public sector.

Lead researcher on the project, Professor Joss Itheka told The Engineer that the group will be spreading the funding across two parallel initiatives. One team will work on the development of AI-based decision making algorithms, while another will develop a robotic platform optimised  to work in a typical office environment.

Itheka hopes to combine these two elements in a prototype system early next year and is currently in discussions with a number of local authorities regarding potential trials.

He claimed that if successful the project could make a major contribution to the government’s efforts to cut the deficit. ‘History is littered with examples of austerity providing a spur for innovation, and this project is perhaps the ultimate example of this,’ he said. ‘Putting aside the development and maintenance costs robots can effectively work for free, 24 hours a day seven days a week and could slash billions from government’s operating costs.’

Though he agreed that the aims of the project may be viewed as controversial, Itheka stressed that there’s nothing new about the use of robots to replace manual labour. ‘High levels of automation have been the reality in most areas of industry for decades….and few companies worth their salt would eschew the use of robots. Why shouldn’t this be mirrored in the public sector?’

Ultimately Itheka envisages the development of not just robotic civil servants but also politicians. ‘Free of the irrational emotions that govern the behaviour of humans, our robot leaders could make decisions based entirely on logic, they would be incapable of lying and they wouldn’t commit expenses fraud.’