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NEXT MACHINA

Metal men – and women. Synthesised voices. Strange, staring eyes. If this is what you think a robot is, think again. Or maybe, let the robots think a bit for you.

Words Peter Taylor-Whiffen
Illustrations Tom Gauld

Robots can think for themselves. In fact, ‘thinking robots’ – or, as they are also known, artificial intelligence and machine learning – have been with us for decades. In 2016, however, things are changing. Today, bots can use data they have gathered to take themselves – and us – to (humanly) unimaginable places. It doesn’t mean you should be scared – but it does mean the human-robot relationship requires redefinition.

“To take full advantage of the science of robotics – and there are infinite possibilities – we have to hand over some control to the machine and exploit its automation capabilities,” says Dr Danail Stoyanov, Senior Lecturer and Programme Director for the new MSc in Robotics and Computation. “To give it autonomy may mean trusting it to make decisions based on data that it is aware of, but you are not.” He should know – Dr Stoyanov is leading UCL research on a diagnostic ‘pill’ which can travel around your body, diagnose what is wrong with you and then use a combination of collected data and its own intelligence to work out what test to do next – or even immediately fix the problem. Within the same department another team is developing the capability to go even deeper, performing the most intricate surgery at a nano-level on human cells to enhance IVF outcomes.

Handing over control to the robots, however, is potentially easier in some situations than others. Jason Kingdon (Electronic and Electrical Engineering 1989), tech entrepreneur and chairman of process automation company Blue Prism, says his company has developed smart software that can do what he describes as the “grunt” work in an office environment. “Imagine having an innovative idea and having it made so, instantly. And as the robot is carrying it out, it’s also gathering data – the most fine-grain time and motion study of the task it is completing so that the work can be made even more efficient. And, because it never gets bored, it boosts productivity by an almost infinite degree. This technology is headed into the mainstream, with the potential for applications we haven’t even thought of yet.”

In fact, for many people, the word ‘robot’ still retains many of the simplistic ‘metal men’ connotations of old, says Professor Stuart Robson, Professor of Photogrammetry and Laser Scanning and Head of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering. “But robotics today is taking us far beyond that – it moves us beyond human thought and capability to machines with the ability to act on data that cannot be gathered or processed by humans.”

But allowing a robot to take control raises more ethical (and legal) concerns when diagnosing an illness or in other AI applications – such as, for instance, drone warfare. “The big question is what happens when it goes wrong?” says Dr Stoyanov. “In healthcare treatment, where does the burden of consent lie? Is it reasonable for a robot to assume consent, or to give it on behalf of the patient it’s treating? In warfare, are robots allowed to make decisions? Should they be? Do they need to be in possession of all the same ethical considerations as a human?”

It’s a tricky area, made more complex because it is not just the science of robotics that is developing – our human relationships with them are evolving too. “We’ve all heard the gloomy science fiction vision – everyone will be made redundant, humans will be kept as pets and so on,” says Kingdon. “Yes, technological advances are taking jobs away, but they’re creating new ones by freeing up humans to look at work in a different light, in the same way that we no longer send ponies down pits or children up chimneys.

“One of the first things we always see is anthropomorphism – even though our robots reside in software, people give them names: ‘Oh, Henry can do that for us’,” continues Kingdon. “Unlike traditional technology, robots can be trained. And because we are replicating human activity, human co-workers see the software as a human replica doing all the mundane jobs they’d rather not do, so they love it. Humans are not threatened by it, and that’s because the job doesn’t go but the capacity changes and it gives humans the time to do what humans do best – think creatively. Our outlooks change; we become leaders of thought, and creators of work, thinking: ‘What else could Henry do for us?’”

Senior Research Associate Dr Vijay Pawar’s research facilitates the development of robots that can help clinicians operate on donor cells in-vitro to fight disease more effectively. “Our work on haptic technologies enables us to perform microsurgical tasks, such as cell biopsies and micromanipulations, with greater control, ease and efficiency. The very best engineer we have is nature – robotics can help us to understand how nature works, and build tools that can develop organisms better than ever before.”

And the robotic input into individual human life doesn’t end there. “Technology will develop – we already have exo-skeletons that support people,” says Dr Pawar. We are looking at a future of augmented humans who are robotically enhanced. If we can replicate nature, that is something special.”

Dr Stoyanov agrees: “Robotics is enhancing healthcare, and synthetic biology is enhancing drugs to the point where we may in the future see, instead of treatments for a particular illness, personalised medicines based purely on each human’s individual make-up. The ability of robots to react, to interact, independently – autonomously yet trained by us – develops them and us as we both ‘learn’ how to do new things and shape each other. Looking forward is tremendously exciting because the robots will discover ways of operating, of ‘thinking’, that have not even occurred to us. But of course we have to innovate responsibly and carefully, aware of the potential dangers that robots and AI could bring.”

This ‘human-in-the-loop’ technology is one of the key themes as UCL’s Faculty of Engineering Sciences prepares to expand into a 3,000-square-metre studio space at Here East on the former London Olympics site. The premises will provide flexible spaces for research and open up the department’s work with a system of robotic interfaces that let humans touch, explore and manipulate structures above and below normal human scales.

The new area will cover the team’s work, from nanoscale robotic surgery to large-scale manufacturing and construction. “The whole space itself will use robotic engineering to be adaptable and flexible to enable us to keep redesigning it for our needs as we go along,” says Professor Stephen Hailes, Professor of Wireless Systems and Head of Autonomous Systems. “Regardless of whether the robots are for the intricacy of surgery or designing aircraft, it allows us to have a toolkit adaptable for all these applications. It’s not a static building – the robotic technology makes it a ‘living’ organism capable of changing with us.”

“For the past 40 years the primary impact of robotics has been in the automation of tasks that we, as humans, have either priced our way out of or we have decided we are not predictable enough for,” says Peter Scully, Director of the Bartlett Manufacturing and Design Exchange. “However, something with a far greater impact than just automation of current tasks is on the horizon.

“Technology is being developed now without target application: ‘What could you do if this was possible?’ Currently, many of these opportunities are being taken up within the arts and media, but the real impact will be when enough people are able to author and build robotic applications. If the UK is to play a role in this, the universities will need to work with the public, schools and business.”

Flexibility is key not only to the advancement of robotics as a discipline, but also in passing on the baton to the next generation of scientists, says Professor Robson. “As well as the surgical, healthcare and synthetic biology applications, it will advance manufacture, digital fabrication, structures testing and inspection at large scales. Robotics doesn’t just change the way we are physically, it has the power to enhance our perception of the world around us.”

A new Robotics and Autonomous Systems hub will be developed at UCL East, a major project within UCL’s fundraising campaign. “We can corres such as Alzheimer’s in far more detail. The University will be building new partnerships with companies, foundations and individuals to support the ambitious plans for the new campus. To add your support please visit: www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-east

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  • InboxInbox
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  • UCL a “global university”UCL a “global university”
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  • How to Build a BrainHow to Build a Brain
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  • The power of philanthropyThe power of philanthropy
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  • London  vs  WorldLondon vs World
Portico Issue 3. 2016/17
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