US robot will star in zone for the best of British science

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The Independent Online
THE MILLENNIUM DOME'S organisers have rejected a world-beating robot design by a British team in favour of an American one - because the home-grown one was judged too big.

The decision was made in the face of advice from the Dome's scientific adviser, who had suggested the exhibit and is now "not happy" about the choice.

British scientists and researchers are stunned by the decision, which means that the "Mind Zone" section of an exhibition intended to be for the "best of British" will instead feature two pre-programmed designs bought in from the US, and a nearly 50-year-old British system which first featured in the 1951 Festival of Britain.

That comes as a stark contradiction to the Dome's boast that it will deliver "the greatest exploration of who we are and where we're going that the world has ever seen".

Among those dismayed by the rejection is Professor Richard Gregory of the University of Bristol, who is the scientific adviser on what to include in the Mind Zone.

"I'm not happy about it, but in the end it wasn't my decision," he said. "I suggested it to the Dome people in the first place. But there was a problem over the size - the building was designed before they had any idea of what was going to be in it, which seems rather backwards to me."

The proposed design, from the University of Sussex's Centre for Computational Neuroscience (CCN), would have consisted of two robot arms hanging from the ceiling. They would be controlled by neural networks, which uses software to mimic the way that groups of nerves make "intelligent" decisions.

"The neural networks mean that it's more alive, and unpredictable in precisely what it will do," said Dr Philip Husbands, a reader in artificial intelligence at the CCN. "This is very cutting-edge, and all designed in the UK.

"I would have to say it's an opportunity missed. We could have offered something that was entertaining, scientific and philosophical. Instead they seem to have gotten incredibly restricted by budgets and space."

Previous designs by the Sussex group include an eight-legged "Evolved Octopod", which is autonomous and whose control systems were developed by "machine evolution" - so that even its builders do not know what rules govern its behaviour, only what it cannot do. Demonstrated at an international conference in 1997, it impressed artificial intelligence scientists from around the world.

But despite initial enthusiasm from the New Millennium Experience Company, which chooses the Dome's contents, the Sussex team found that the designers had a different criterion for inclusion: size, and reliability.

"Our initial proposal was for arms that would have been twice human scale," said Dr Husbands. "But it could have been any scale, larger or smaller. We would have had a back projection showing how the neural networks were making decisions about what to do with the arms."

After some weeks of indecision, the Dome organisers finally turned down the Sussex team in favour of American-built systems - which will also be robot arms suspended from the ceiling.

The other robot exhibit will be a revival of an artificial intelligence design built by Grey Walters. His autonomous "tortoises" were shown at the Festival of Britain in 1951.