Robots will change the world, but how?

Issue date: 03 August 2009

Professor Alan Winfield with a group of miniature 'e-puck' robots Professor Alan Winfield of the University of the West of England (UWE) will address this and other key questions in his new role as a Senior Media Fellow for EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council).

The prestigious Media Fellowship has been awarded to Professor Winfield to bring his research and related subjects to a wide public audience through communication and public engagement work. The EPSRC Senior Media Fellowships are awarded to a very small number of individuals each year whose work has relevance to the general public and who show a commitment to communicating their work to a wide audience. This is the first time a Senior Media Fellowship has been awarded to a researcher from a post '92 University.

Professor Winfield is leading a number of research projects in robotics and the Fellowship will enable him to focus on helping the general public gain a better understanding of this work.

Professor Winfield explains, “I want to use this Fellowship to encourage debate about intelligent robots in society and especially to develop our understanding of the ethical questions around sharing our lives with robots. It is especially important to engage young people in this debate. Most people are passive consumers of technology, but I think intelligent robots are such a revolutionary new technology that is it vital that we open a dialogue on what it will mean to have intelligent robots in our lives. If young people especially are involved in this debate, then they are in a better position to influence the future direction of robots in their own lives.”

He continues, “Some fictional views of the future paint a very bleak picture of what could happen with intelligent robots, but equally robots could change the world for the better. The point is that we have a choice. The future is too important to be allowed to just happen – instead we and our children must own it.”

Professor Winfield currently leads 'Walking with Robots' a project that is taking robotics research out of the lab and into public spaces. The project has already held and been involved with 160 events and activities around the UK, entertaining and educating children, young people and families about intelligent robots. Through the Fellowship Professor Winfield will explore and explain the rapid changes in intelligent robotics and the implications of these advances for society.

'The Emergence of Artificial Culture in Robot Societies' is the second focus of Professor Winfield's Fellowship. He is leading a four year EPSRC funded research project which will attempt to address the question, “Why do we (humans) have culture?” Professor Winfield explains, “We have many theories of how culture might emerge but, for obvious reasons, this transition has never been observed, and the archaeological record provides very few clues. By culture I mean the way different groups do things in a certain way - for instance how different ways of greeting emerge. This project is creating an artificial society with a group of miniature 'e-puck' robots and then looking at how traditions emerge and evolve in the robot society. We plan to film these robots using natural history filming techniques – such as cameras on the robots themselves, so we can see how they react and interact to each other. We will see the world through their eyes, and look at what is going on inside their 'brains'. This is groundbreaking research that has not been done before. We also aim to make full use of the internet to enable anyone who is interested to see the research as it progresses.”

Professor Winfield has experience in the media and in Science Public Engagement. The Senior Media Fellowship will build on this experience and provide new opportunities to bring his knowledge and enthusiasm to the public.

For more current stories relating to robotics see:

Bristol teens explore future impact of robots

Researchers unveil whiskered robot rat

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