Make way for the age of the robot

The Telegraph 12 July 2014

Robots could soon be let loose on decommissioned nuclear sites, farms, abandoned mines and even whole towns in Britain, to test how they behave in real-world situations.

Although such a concept might seem to be a futuristic vision straight from the pages of a science fiction thriller, this is not fantasy.

There are plans in place to put 20 driverless vehicles on the pavements of Milton Keynes next year, with 100 in use by 2017.

These so-called “pods” — which can carry two people each and will be able to travel at a maximum speed of 12mph — will initially run in their own separate lanes, but the aim is to have them mingling with pedestrians by 2017.

It is a baby step towards a future, which many believe is not far off, when driverless vehicles are the norm and only real enthusiasts keep a private car in the garage.

Unlike many developments in modern technology which appear to be drawn from the US, this is one area where the UK has a growing specialism.

At the start of July, the Government launched a robotics strategy plan in an attempt to grab a greater share of what is a rapidly growing market.

With hopes of luring international robot researchers to these shores, the report recommended developing robot test beds across the country.

David Willetts, the science and universities minister, says: “When people look back on a 20-year view, they will be amazed at how much time we spent navigating our cars around. The idea that you spent one and half hours sitting behind a steering wheel and changing gears, that will look very peculiar to people.”

Willetts is fired up about robots and autonomous systems, having just returned from a trade mission to Silicon Valley, where he was introducing UK robotics companies to potential partners, customers and funders — or “taking coals to Newcastle”, as one US publication put it.

One of those companies was Sebastian Conran Associates, which has helped develop a robotic companion for the elderly and is working on a table that can follow you around.

This is not quite as crazy as it sounds. Anyone who requires sticks or a frame to walk will immediately understand the usefulness of a tea trolley that can follow you into the next room. Conran sees huge potential for the product in hospitals, where patients can summon their over-bed tables, commanding them to rise or lower in height, thus eliminating the need to call a nurse simply to shift a piece of furniture.

He says there was definitely a feeling on the streets of Palo Alto, California, that robotics is “the new rock ’n’ roll”.

“The emphasis in Silicon Valley is on hardware not software,” he adds.

As with the internet, innovation has been led by the democratisation of technology. Smartphone technology means high-performance, low-power chips are readily available and cheap. Robotics is moving out of the laboratory and into the garage, where entrepreneurs can tinker.

Harry Gee was also on the trade mission to Silicon Valley, with his company Agilic. “The cost of the actual hardware — what you need to build a robot — is much, much lower,” he says. “Even small start-ups with not much cash can start to develop robotics.”

His company is built on that concept, offering affordable kits to build, program and customise robots based on the Raspberry Pi – a low cost, credit-card-sized computer widely used in education.

The plan is to sell these to schools, so Gee has had to keep prices low. The TiddlyBot, a simple robot that can move around and draw lines, costs just £26; while the PiBot, which is much more advanced, with voice recognition and sensors to navigate around a room, will cost closer to £100.

“The intention is to stimulate interest in learning technology,” says Gee. “We’re trying to make it engaging and interesting for young people.”

Another of the entrepreneurs, Silas Adekunle, is also hoping to capitalise on the appeal of robots for children. A 23-year-old robotics undergraduate at the University of the West of England, he has developed something that looks like a Transformer for the smartphone generation. Mecha Monsters are four-legged robots that can be built and customised to battle one another, as operated by smartphone.

But it is not just toys that UK robotics companies are building. Bristol-based MapleBird is developing tiny drones — or “flying robots”, as chief executive Glenn Smith would rather they were called. “There’s very negative connotations around the word ‘drone’,” he says.

Smith says these could be used by firefighters to go inside burning buildings and look for people, or to help out in disaster zones. As they are so small they do not interfere with air-traffic control or helicopters already on the scene.

MapleBird’s drones look like large insects. With a body that would sit in the palm of your hand, they have four wings that flap at up to 300 beats per second, which helps in gusty conditions. So far, the company has mastered forward flight but is working on take-off and landing.

Far more established is the London-based Shadow Robot Company, founded in 1987. It has developed the Dexterous Hand, which gives robots the same capability and flexibility as a human hand. This is already for sale, with customers including Nasa.

The potential for further innovation, in the domestic, agricultural and industrial spheres, is huge. Conran says: “If you think of the impact of the internet over the past 20 years, in 20 years’ time robotics will have a similar sort of impact.”

His interest is largely in the home. “It will be as normal as having a dishwasher; having a simple device that can clear the kitchen table, pick up the kids’ toys and do some simple tasks. I don’t think they are going to be humanoid. We’re talking R2-D2 not C-3PO.”

Agriculture, meanwhile, is the area where people expect the most rapid pace of change. Part of this is because it is easy to experiment in large fields, empty of human life. Here the focus is on small drones monitoring crops, precision farming and driverless tractors.

The strategy report notes: “In the absence of significant investment in this sector, anywhere in the world, the UK has the opportunity to take the lead in developing and promoting this technology, and sustain that lead by investment in a UK-based robotic research farm.”

In industry, meanwhile, the UK has lagged behind. Smith says: “The number of robots we use in factories is really low. In other countries they don’t have a cultural thing where robots are seen as replacing humans. We need to use robots more effectively to increase the manufacturing base in the UK. We need to embrace the technology. Germany has a lot more robots than us.”

Proponents say that in the future robots will take all the dull, dangerous and dirty jobs. Mining, for example, will be entirely automated.

This kind of talk tends to raises fears of mass unemployment but Willetts is relaxed. “This is what’s called the Luddite fallacy,” he says. “What happens is – because human desires and wants are infinite – patterns of employment change. We live in a period of change. The typing pool disappeared into history and we didn’t have major unemployment. As a particularly flexible economy, it is a challenge, but it is one we can rise to.”

Then there is the question of regulation. Developing artificial intelligence throws up ethical issues. The kind of questions posed in science fiction — such as in the film I, Robot – gain significance in a world where machines learn from experience. Willetts says with a laugh that Asimov’s laws of robotics do “start becoming relevant”.

But he counters: “We’re a long way off a multi-purpose robot. The foreseeable future is robots in specialised environments doing specialised functions.

“So you’ll have an agricultural field-scanning robot; perhaps household robots that do specific things. The near future is not a robot that can cook supper and operate a screwdriver and fly to deliver our books.”

A more pressing concern is privacy. Devices that learn from their environment in order to function better must, by definition, be recording information. The question is whether we are comfortable with technology companies potentially having that level of insight into our lives.

Gee says: “That’s already started since the birth of social media. I’m uncomfortable with the growth of data mining. Robotics is going to increase that. It is bringing the internet into the real world.

It does have a much deeper reach.”

He says Google and other firms will get involved in robotics for the information they can gather. “They will see what you are eating for breakfast, the colour of your skin and they will use that for commercial gain. That is a moral concern.”

The march of progress is, however, unlikely to be impeded. A McKinsey report last year estimated the potential global economic impact of robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) would be between $1.9 trillion (£1.1 trillion) and $6.4 trillion a year by 2025, providing the politicians with a big number to bandy around.

A more meaningful figure is the potential size of the market for these products. Current estimates suggest the market for robots in non-military sectors will be around £70bn a year by 2025.

Although the US, Korea, China, Japan, Germany and France are all investing heavily in this area, there is a feeling that no one country has yet cornered the market.

Huw Davies, of the Technology Strategy Board, which issued the strategy report, insists the UK is not late to the party: “How many robots do you encounter in your daily life? Probably zero. There are some countries with good robotics technology but they are not dominant. It’s all to play for.”