Marvel or menace? Marianne Swinkels investigates the world-leading robotics work being carried out right here in Bristol as part of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’

The age of the robot is nigh. And with it, huge ethical and societal implications sparking off ‘upside versus downside’ debates in political, philosophical and industrial arenas across the globe. Who knows whether the voiced concerns are justified as we head for the so-called 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution)? Will science fiction fantasy turn to scary reality? Will fears that robots are destined to take over a near apocalyptic world, RoboCop-style, be validated? Even Professor Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest living scientific minds, has flagged up a warning – that, along with the benefits, come inevitable dangers.

One thing is for sure. There’s an undeniable and unstoppable change underway as the development, creativity and sophistication of artificial intelligence technology – the power of machines to learn, communicate and interact with us – gathers force at a tsunami-like rate. You’ll have heard of driverless cars, yet in the next decade or two we can expect to see autonomous aircraft, robots at work and home, swarms – armies of small robots with a hive-like group behaviour – and software, some of which will be able to make their own decisions without human intervention, across many aspects of our daily lives.

Bristol Robotics LaboratoryBristol’s state-of-the-art academic centre for multi-disciplinary robotics is home to some 200 researchers and practitioners (all photography © Bristol Robotics Laboratory)

Like it or not, somehow or other the robots really are coming. And one of the epicentres of this new cyber world and robo revolution is right here in Bristol. Our innovative city is home to the world-leading Bristol Robotics Laboratory – the groundbreaking, all-singing, all-dancing state-of-the-art academic centre for multi-disciplinary robotics research. It is, to boot, an internationally recognised Centre of Excellence where some 200 researchers, boffins and practitioners are dedicated to developing technology which will allow us access to a brave new world and undertake tasks currently well beyond our possibilities. And these finest minds are reassuringly tuned in to the sometimes controversial and divisive issues surrounding the huge ‘benefits versus risks to society’ debate as the whole embedded intelligence field catapults from mere fiction to hard fact.

Bristol Robotics Laboratory

Some projects feature robots with 3D printed fingertips that can ‘feel’; while others monitor anxiety levels, control instruments during operations, ‘eat’ pollution or identify underwater hazards

Few doubt that our interaction with and dependency on robots is a certainty, though many fret about the threats posed by an automated future. Will robots be our slaves or saviours? Manipulate, facilitate or obliterate? While there may be no definite answers, somewhere up the road in UWE’s Frenchay campus, the experts certainly do get the future big picture. This top lab even boasts a ‘robot ethicist’ – an impressive world-first of a role – in the form of the real-life human Professor Alan Winfield, whose job is dedicated to pondering exactly such matters.

And his reasoned view is this: “Intelligent robotics is a technology likely to impact every aspect of future life and society: robots will, for example, change the way we treat illness, look after the elderly, how we run our homes and workplaces, how we manage our waste, harvest our crops, or mine for resources and – I’m sorry to say – how we fight our wars. But as we build smarter robots, the boundaries between robots as mere machines and robots as friends or companions, will become blurred, raising new and challenging ethical questions. This potential is both exciting and frightening.”

Let us look at the positives and take a drone’s-eye view of the impressive person-centered developments being spearheaded in the lab – a unique UWE and University of Bristol collaboration.

It is, for sure, a real-life robot wonderland with its vast flying arena, test pool, mechanical workshops, wet labs, assisted living studio et al. And the plethora of constantly evolving research and development projects is amazing: a thousand-strong swarm of intelligent robots undergoing thought experiments; a new generation of robots set to do maintenance tasks in dangerous nuclear sites and hazardous environments; prototypes that can deal with bomb disposal, waste segregation, radiation detection and a ‘Row-bot’ that ‘eats’ pollution, generating the electricity to power itself by swallowing dirty water.

They are exploring the challenges of aerial robots, giving them the intelligence to fly and help with radiation tracing, collapsed buildings surveyance, identifying underwater hazards and collecting environmental data. And the lab’s pioneering work frequently hits the headlines for its far-reaching and valuable medical, healthcare and social projects. The Assisted Living Centre focuses on the role of robots caring for the elderly and disabled: intelligent robot assistants and smart devices designed to help people with dressing, nutrition and mobility; smart garments that can monitor health status and the use of voice and gesture recognition to aid communication.

Another team is pushing forward with tactile robots that have human-like dexterity, an artificial sense of touch and even 3D printed fingertips that can ‘feel’. Their healthcare goals include helping hundreds of thousands of stroke survivors regain use of their hands, and independence. And they’ve been given a £4million go-ahead for a wearable robotic project to improve keyhole surgery – a ‘gripper’ hand which fits over a surgeon’s own to control instruments during operations. And then there’s SAM, short for Self-Help for Anxiety Management – a mobile robot able to sense, monitor and manage a person’s anxiety levels in different contexts and environments. I’ve got one on order! And I’m happily in line for all and any positive robo assistance designed to make the advancing years easier to manage. Who knows what the future will bring? I guess only time will tell.

Or someone in that Bristol lab.

Find out more about the Bristol Robotics Laboratory here: brl.ac.uk