The robot revolution

As a roboticist you could help build a team of C-3POs and change how we all live forever, says Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

In the words of the legendary sci-fi novelist Isaac Asimov, a robot must protect humans, obey humans (where it doesn't conflict with the first law) and protect itself (where it doesn't conflict with laws one and two.)

As with so much else in the stranger-than-fiction world of artificial intelligence and humanoid beings though, the search for the ultimate in robot technology to construct our cars, clean our floors and even perform delicate microsurgery on us, is never going to be that simple.

Take the academic background of roboticists themselves. Rich Walker is chief engineer at the London-based Shadow Robotics - a group of inventors best known for their invention of a multi-use, 'dextrous' robotic hand, which can be used in a variety of domestic and industrial settings. The hand, which has 24 separately powered and controlled movements, has already caught the imagination of leading disability organisations and even NASA, which last year purchased one for €90,000.

With the help of Government money, this Shadow hand is currently being used to help create an entire robot that can be guided, trained and programmed to carry out everyday tasks for people with disabilities.

Walker, whose other key project is the development of a "surgical robot" to assist in hospital operations, believes that despite the rather geeky image of robotics or cybernetics, some of the best roboticists working in the UK today come from an arts and music, rather than a pure science, background.

A graduate in Maths and Computer Science himself, but whose company's managing director spent more than 30 years as a professional photographer, Walker believes that degrees in robotics or mechatronics are not essential if you are sufficiently imaginative to create your own machines.

He says that "while a good robotics degree from a decent university may help you up the ladder" in this broad and unstructured branch of engineering, it is basic hands-on skill that marks out a "textbook" roboticist who can make someone else's robot from an "instinctive" one who can create his own: "In recruiting for Shadow, we find that people with a performance background in acting, music or dance are often better able to understand how to make useful robots than people with a first-class honours degree in electrical engineering, who have swallowed an awful lot of textbooks, but who still can't show us anything much.

"In some ways, what we do looks to the outside world like a highly academic or technical discipline, but the truly gifted roboticist is usually better able to show us examples of what he's built and why than talk endlessly about robotics theory."

While Shadow attracts people with backgrounds as diverse as mechanical engineering and cybernetics, what many of them appear to have in common apart from being male, says Walker, is "a certain level of competence at playing a musical instrument; improvising and being creative without needing any formal instruction". He adds that while women are often fascinated by robotics, like other IT-related professions, the industry is still heavily male dominated.

Dr Kevin Warwick is Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, where he teaches mostly male but also female students about the interaction between humans and technology. His is one of only a small number of universities where such a course is available at present.

Dr Warwick agrees that geographers, historians and indeed anyone with what he calls "a less usual subject" can do well in the world of robotics, but stresses that a good grounding in Physics and Maths to A-level standard is still essential in order to fully grasp the intricacies of creating a machine that can in effect think and reason, and can copy or improve on human performance.

"I think you do need a reasonable technical background to understand how to make robots work, but this is also a very creative discipline that needs artistic flair and imagination as well as the innate grasp of numbers and scientific principles. That's why it appeals to both artists and scientists."

Dr Warwick notes that the entry qualifications for his course have risen steadily to three B's at A-Level and says that unlike other less popular science subjects, "we never appear to struggle for students".

While he has a distinct problem with undergraduates being lured to work for various firms before their studies are complete, unemployability is definitely not a problem for these left/right brainers, he says.

"Robotics sounds like a really niche subject, but there are many, many applications for cybernetics or robotics in industry and medicine, and these are increasing all the time as we learn more and strive to create the ultimate domestic robot to mind the children, wash clothes and do the shopping for us," he says.

"Although our students say that the course is hard work, stepping into the unknown in this way is also immense fun," he adds.

Whether their business cards describe them as mechanical designers, robotics consultants or perhaps design, software or hardware engineers, today's roboticist can expect to earn a starting salary of £23,000, with employers as diverse as British Gas, Dyson and Microsoft. Projects may include working on anything from the development of underwater robots to help in oil exploration, the creation of "intelligent" vacuum cleaners or speech-recognition computer software.

It goes without saying that the opportunities to work overseas in the robotics or artificial intelligence fields - which is essentially the creation of brains for robots - are extensive for roboticists who can demonstrate a good spread of work.

Although the Japanese lead the world when it comes to making lookalike or humanoid robots - notably Honda's people-friendly ASIMO or Advanced Step In Innovative Mobility biped robot - Dr Warwick believes that the enthusiasm for robotics in this country is leading to "incredibly varied" career opportunities.

A recent UK magazine, Real Robots, which invited enthusiasts to build their own robot from scratch, sold a very impressive 600,000 copies and demonstrated just how fascinated many people are with the notion of a robot that can free us from everyday tasks.

"When it comes to making production line robots for car plants, say, then Japan, Germany and the US are probably ahead of us. But in terms of creating education products around robotics, or being truly innovative in our application of cybernetics, then the UK is up there at the head of the queue," he adds.

To sci-fi enthusiasts, robotics is invariably about pitting the wits of human beings against those of robots who despite looking a bit like humans have gone off the rails in some way; Doctor Who's evil Cybermen for example.

Away from the world of these scary androids though, Rich Walker believes that it is ultimately the job of robots to do those things that human beings find dirty or distasteful.

"We all know that robots can help build cars and can mow your lawn or vacuum your house, but where they may come in really usefully too is in the world of work."

He believes that dangerous jobs such as fire-fighting or bomb disposal will increasingly be carried out by robotic machines, but their use doesn't end there.

In recent months, the food manufacturing industry has looked at the use of robots to assemble ingredients and meals in aseptic conditions, and this is echoed in the semi-conductor industry where again, human beings can often be the dirtiest, least reliable "components" in an entire factory.

Walker says that after a series of false dawns for robots - and the many promises that have been made about how they will transform our lives for the better - a new generation of robots is set to relieve us from our domestic drudgery and possibly our most repetitive jobs within the next 10 to 20 years.

CASE STUDY 1

Mark Campbell is robot fanatic and toy demonstrator at Hamley's toy store in London. He shows children and adults how to create robots.

Mark expected to do the job, which was advertised in a tube station, for two weeks but he has already clocked up 14 years with the store. The last Hamley's toy demonstrator, a woman, stayed for more than 20 years.

"I get everyone from strait-laced, middle-aged university professors to small kids coming in to see how Lego Mindstorms and our other robotic toys work, but the most impressive customer I have ever met was a five-year-old Japanese lad who picked up the Lego technique and was making genuine robots within minutes of coming in the store.

"Robotic toys are for anyone who likes creating interesting things and who isn't frightened of using a computer to help make them. I see it as part of my job is to show that you don't have to be a geek or have an engineering doctorate to enjoy creating a robotic dog or a castle that has sufficient senses and enough 'brain' to allow or deny entry to the various toy characters that come with it.

"It might sound a bit repetitive, but customers are always different and they bring in a new perspective on toys every day.

"As a child I was a great fan of Lego bricks and played with them endlessly, but when I see the sort of robotic toys that kids have access to today - Star Wars, Batman and the like - I think they are incredibly lucky.

"For an adult like me with a lifelong interest in toys and a passion for robotics, this really is the perfect job.

"Inevitably, I have created millions of weird and wonderful robots of my own over the years and although I love my work, in the future, my career may well develop into original toy design itself."

CASE STUDY 2

Matt Godden, 28, is a senior robotics design engineer at Shadow Robotics.

Matt graduated in Robotic and Electronic Engineering from the University of Salford. Today, as a senior robotics design engineer at Shadow Robotics, he is currently involved in the development of the first full-scale domestic robot. He has been with Shadow for five years and has been heavily involved with the development of the dextrous hand.

"As a child, I was always taking things apart and fiddling with them, and the nice thing was that I found I could actually mend quite a few of the things I chose to open up. By 16 I had decided that robotics was the career for me and since making those initial A-level choices, I don't feel that I've ever looked back.

"Most roboticists dream about creating a robot that can help all of us in our daily lives - something like C-3PO in Star Wars - but I agree that it's hard to pin down how long the technology will take.

"I've worked on the 'hand' and I feel very excited about its applications for the disabled. The kind of things we take for granted - like getting out of bed to get a glass of water in the middle of the night - are major issues for people in wheelchairs and other disabled people, but mean nothing to the rest of us.

"The thought of helping create a robot that can perform these everyday functions and can literally transform peoples' lives for the better is a great incentive for me.

"When it comes to biped robots, the Japanese really are ahead of the game, but here in the UK, we're establishing a great reputation for innovation in other ways. Robotics doesn't always have to be about making humanoid machines that look or speak like us; even if that is how most people imagine the industry to be.

"I'm very optimistic about what robotics can achieve. Twenty years ago, we all saw Star Trek and admired the characters' hand held 'communicators' and felt that if we only had something similar, our lives too would be enriched.

"Well all of us do have communicators now - in the shape of mobile phones - and they have definitely changed our lives. You never can tell when it comes to robotics what will happen next."

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