The race to control the robot
Robocop, The Terminator, Blade Runner and The Matrix have a number of things in common. Yes, they are all science fiction films, involving robots, cyborgs and often a fair amount of violence. But also they offer a pretty exciting view of things to come - could our future on Earth be anything like these visions? Could we have robots that learn what they like and do not like, that think for themselves and can outperform humans? Could we have cyborgs - part-human, part-technological creatures, that evolve from humans as super beings?
Science is all about asking questions such as these: trying to figure out where we are now, where we are heading, what might be possible and what might not, based on the technology and capabilities we have at present.
This is the century of the intelligent robots. It is an important challenge for humans to understand what might be possible. Can we stay in control of robots more intelligent than ourselves?
The concept of robot, as we know it, arose from the Slovak word robota which generally means work. The term robot initially referred to human slave labourers, working mindlessly in fields, simply obeying orders. But in the 1920s Karvel Capek, the Czech science fiction writer, popularised the concept of thinking machine robots in his play Rossum's Universal Robots. This is the idea that we have become familiar with. Now all sorts of machines can be called robots, even aeroplanes, dishwashers and banking machines.
Robots are also a fantastic topic for pupils to learn about life, intelligence, sensing the world and moving around in it. In July, Reading University cybernetics department ran a competition for eight to 11-year-olds using Lego Mindstorms, the home robot-making kits. The children, from 22 schools in the UK and Ireland, had to design and build a robot to travel around a course as quickly as possible, ideally following a black line. They had to build the robot, which helped them learn about gears, motors, turning capabilities and hardware. They also had to program the robots' behaviours on a PC and then to download the program into the robot. This taught them not only about software but also what it means for a robot to "think", to make decisions, to change its "mind". The robot could sense the world either by touch or infra-red (heat) sensors. But how did it respond when touched, how sensitive was it? That was for the children to decide.
In many cases the teachers said they learned as much as the children, if not more. It was clear that everyone wanted to be involved, to investigate. Everyone had to be creative, inventive and even a little bit devious: the hallmarks of good scientists.
Even children up to the age of eight are not too young to get involved. At this age children can design and build trucks, cars, windmills and water wheels. Could they also build a machine that walks? They can learn the basics of software - some simple systems allow for elements to be clipped together at a very high level. If you feel that under-eights are too young to use computers - shame on you.
For children in the 11 to14 age groupthe internet is a boon: creating and modifying web pages, seeking out information, communicating with others around the world. I am delighted at the number of e-mail messages I receive from school children. There is no reason why children in this age group are not controlling their robots across the internet - teleoperation from a remote workstation. This is the type of thing that occurs in the Mars Pathfinder, the probe that was sent to Mars. How do you control a vehicle when it is some distance away and all you can see is what it sees, all you can feel is what it feels? For students in the 14 to18 age group, not only can computers, the internet and robotics be an integral part of their learning but the parameters of operation can be moved to setting a problem and challenging the students to discover whether it can be accomplished.
At Reading University we once set a challenge for a couple of our undergraduates to build a robot to "run" a half-marathon. They used an infra-red tracking device to enable it to follow me as I ran in front of it wearing an infra-red transmitter on a bumbag. But on the day of the race it was extremely sunny and, the sun being a fantastic transmitter of infra-red energy, the robot followed me at first but then went hurtling off in the direction of the sun and crashed into the kerb. Instead of building the world's first half-marathon robot, the students achieved the world's first robot with an athletic injury - and learned an incredible amount in the process.
You can interact with some of Reading University's robots in the Digitopolis section of the Science Museum, in London. Three of the robots are remote controlled; you manipulate another one. You can either be the predator and try to catch the other robots or you can be the prey - can you outsmart the robots?
Technology, computers, robotics and intelligent machinery are already an integral part of the western world. Not a day goes by without our lives being affected by them. In the last century telephones, jet engines, television, computers and the internet completely changed the way we lived. In this century intelligent robots are already making their mark, from fighter planes with no human pilot to vacuum cleaners that go where they want and prototype cars that drive themselves at incredible speeds along the motorway. We will also shortly see cyborgs, part-human, part machines, with a radio signal connecting the human brain to the internet. Perhaps we will one day be able to communicate by sending thought signals to each other instead of speaking. Speech is a pretty old-fashioned means of communicating after all. Whether the future is Robocop or the Terminator, we will find out!
Children who get involved with computers and robotics throughout their school life will be placed to influence the future. It is they who will steer our existence in new directions and control what happens to us all. We are on the threshold of the most exciting time yet in science, with electronic medicine, extra-sensory capabilities and super-intelligent robots all within our reach.
Kevin Warwick is professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading. He will be presenting the year 2000 Royal Institution Christmas lectures