Making robots for human environments

The future of robots is going to be huge argues Dr Nick Hawes, who explains the challenges and possibilities of robot research

‘There’s this huge excitement around robots,’ says Dr Nick Hawes, Senior Lecturer in Intelligent Robotics, School of Computer Science University of Birmingham. ‘Everyone really believes, as we do ourselves, that robots are going to have a huge impact on our future – in workplaces, in roles in various industries.’ But there is one problem that motivated Dr Hawes and the group at Birmingham in their research. ‘The fact that these robots would only run for two hours and only do one useful thing once, made us think that we are not getting close to doing the science that will generate that kind of impact.’ 

The result of this was ‘Bob’ the robot, which generated media the attention as ‘Bob’ was shown working as a security guard, patrolling the offices of a security company. ‘Bob’ was funded as part of a research group called  (Spatio-Temporal Representations and Activities for Cognitive Control in Long-Term Scenarios). STRANDS comprises seven universities across Europe. ‘The STRANDS project has focused on what can we do to make a robot run for more than an hour or two – run for days, weeks and months,’ says Dr. Hawes. There are two interesting things about this, he says. 

Controlled environment

Firstly there’s the science and engineering challenge of making an ‘autonomous robot, a robot that can do things for itself, run for that length of time in an environment it has no control over. Normally when you put robots into places you have to control everything, to tie things down, make sure nobody gets in the robot’s way. You want to be able to make a robot cope in a real human environment.’ 

Secondly there is a real pay-off when a robot can run for an extended period of time. ‘The robot can start to learn things about this environment that it wouldn’t ever see normally,’ says Dr Hawes. ‘It gets to see daily routines and patterns: what time people come and go; where you put your mug on your desk everyday; things that humans have a common sense understanding of, but robots don’t. Our aim is for robots to learn that over time.’ 

From driverless cars to washing machines

But do we have a certain amount of cultural baggage around robots, certain expectations of what they look like and how they operate? Is our image of robots too anthropomorphic, and is that an inhibiting factor? ‘I think that is the way science fiction has portrayed them to date,’ says Dr Hawes. ‘I’m not really interested in robots that look like humans. There are some advantages to have human-like features, humans naturally understand other humans from their physical movement. Having a robot with some humanlike physical movement – with eyes looking at places, positioning your body to look. Humans understand that as having some meaning, and just generally it makes them feel more comfortable about other robots.’

He points out that our environment, from door handles to cupboards, is created for humans so having a human-type robot is easier to fit in. ‘But at the same time,’ he argues, ‘robots are really tools, a technology. Their form should be dictated by their function. A driverless car is a driverless car and that’s a robot, to some a washing machine is a robot. There is a much more general space of autonomous intelligent machines that can do things on their own, some of them may end up looking like humans but most of them won’t.’ 

The next step with Bob is extending his run-time. Other STRANDS partners are working in the area of ‘care’, in a hospital in Vienna where a robot is doing support and portering-type work. ‘There is going to be a big industry building and programming robots so we think our undergraduates need to be engaging with that,’ says Dr Hawes. So at the University they, ‘teach undergraduate and taught Masters courses in AI and robotics, we have a Robot club where students work on Bob and similar robots. We are really trying to get everyone, from 18 upwards working on this technology because it is going to be huge.’