Robots have been part of science fiction for decades and have been a part of the real, industrial world for years, building everything from cars to phones. But, what’s on the horizon looks even more exciting.
We spoke to Dr Klaus-Peter Zauner who teaches at the Science and Engineering of Natural Systems Group (SENSe) at the University of Southampton’s School of Electronics & Computer Science (ECS) to find out more.
Recently, some of Dr Zaumer’s students became famous when they designed swarm robots - small robots designed to work together in groups – based on the motors in mobile phone that produce ‘vibrate’ alerts. Some experts suggest that this could signal a new wave of cheaper, more accessible units in the future.
Dr Zauner, can you tell us a little about the Biologically Inspired Robotics course you teach?
It’s a 4th year option course (among other courses) that is open to a range of students which makes it exciting – we have electrical engineering students, electrical mechanics, electronics students, computer engineering students and computer scientists all on one course.
There are only a few lectures that give an overview of the field and then they form teams and do a robotics project of their own.
You originally studied biochemistry…has that influenced you?
Absolutely, I think that in robotics you can see the difference between what an organism can do compared to technology. People look at computers and think ‘fantastic’…but I think this is an optimistic view. Compared to a human mind, the computer is very primitive…we have no way of engineering even something like a fly.
So you think of robotics biologically?
I think eventually we should look at organic-type robotics. This is a difficult challenge as in conventional engineering the mindframe and the tools don’t fit very well to that.
As I come from biochemistry, I look at using molecules…so maybe we could have small molecular machines, but it’s a long way off.
Are there any new design principles you’ve seen enter the robotics world?
There are several new directions. One is in using simpler methods as early machines were heavily over-engineered. People now know that they don’t have to be so fancy and a lot of that is to do with biological inspiration. When you see that the number of neurons in small organisms is very little, you’re inspired to get some motion and walking out of simple techniques.
A second direction has to do with interfacing with the robot - when we are able to get a robot to a stage where we can get someone to use it …even if they’re not an excellent programmer.
So, for you, what is the difference between a robot and a simple mechanical device that does routine tasks?
There are many machines that might have been called a robot some time ago but which we now see as a mundane mechanical computer controlled thing. For me to be excited it has to be autonomous. Something which is remote-controlled to do bomb disposal I wouldn’t call a robot.
You should be able to set it off so it can go and do its job. You should be able to send it to places where communication isn’t very good…like underwater or exploring on Mars. The robot then needs to be able to figure out what is the next action. It needs to be able to decide if something is risky or interesting. It needs to be able to act sensibly in a complicated environment.
How far are we from completely autonomous robots?
We are at an early stage.
Robots have featured heavily in science fiction, most recently in WALL-E. Do you think this has helped the field progress?
Certainly, there’s a big time gap between what you can imagine and what you can realise. I think it’s good that you can have those ideas and then get enticed into the field. It needs those big ideas to make progress, otherwise it’s very incremental.
What kind of people do you think are suited to studying and working with robots?
The robotics field is at such an early stage that I think people from all backgrounds can contribute. I think it’s good that people have a good knowledge of mathematics, but that’s not enough…they need to know about materials as well. You need to be able to put your imagination into something that can be made.
The swarm robots which we are displaying were made in the class as a student project. We didn’t tell them what they should do. They had enough understanding to make it happen.
There are two kinds of robotics. One is conventional, assembly line robotics. There it’s hard to make progress outside of conventional engineering as there are certain limitations that are well understood.
On there other hand, there are areas like biorobotics where you can have simple, little ideas – like gluing bristles from a brush on to a microphone so you have whiskers like on a cat that works as a sensor. It’s those little ideas that you can do at home or at the lab where the potential to make a new, interesting discovery happens. That’s where there biggest progress comes from and where students can make things in a few months, and that’s really exciting.
What kinds of jobs can students move in to?
There are numerous things you can do, for example developing a physics type environment for new robots. Those are the same kinds of simulations that are used in games engines.
So it’s fair to say that the future of robotics is a big, open, exciting book?
Yes, there’s a big future in getting away from the constrained, narrow way of computer processing that we have done for such a long time. We have the same machine as Babbage [an engineer who designed a mechanical computer in the 1800s] but massively sped up and with massive memory.
This has limitations, if you want something that is intelligent (as we understand human intelligence) then we need to step out of that and look at information processing in nature and how that works. Certainly our brains – which are the best information processors that we know – work in no way like computers.
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You can find out more about robots at The Big Bang