Academy Award for Walking with Robots programme

Issue date: 07 June 2010


Walking with Robots Academics from the University of the West of England have won a top accolade for their work on a project to enable the public to engage with advanced robotics.

Walking with Robots has been run by a team made up of Professor Alan Winfield, Dr Karen Bultitude and Dr Claire Rocks (University of the West of England), Professor Noel Sharkey (University of Sheffield) and Professor Owen Holland (University of Sussex). The team will receive The Royal Academy of Engineering Rooke Medal at the Academy Awards Dinner at London's Guildhall on Monday 7 June [2010] from Academy President Lord Browne of Madingley.

Walking with Robots has just completed a three-year programme of public events funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). High profile public events across the UK have explored questions such as “What is a Robot? What do we want robots to do in the future? What can they do now? Can robots have personalities? Can a fully-functional conscious robot be developed? If so, would it be human? And should it have rights?”

Walking with Robots formed a network to bring key researchers on intelligent robotics together with leading science communicators to promote a wider public engagement with the reality of contemporary robotics research and with the people who do that research. The network – which now continues beyond the programme of live events – covers the UK's most exciting areas of intelligent robotics research, including artificial consciousness, biomimetic (animal-like) robots, evolutionary and adaptive robots, climbing and walking robots, space and planetary robotics, swarm robotics and socially interactive robots.

With activities ranging from building robot gardens with schoolchildren to a pub guide to robots, the project involved people all over the UK, often engaging audiences in a two-way exchange with the robotics community. A public debate called 'Robot Rights at the Dana Centre' was sold out, drawing attention to the ethical questions raised by intelligent robotics technology. The Academy hosted a young people's vision conference enabling 45 students from London schools to explore visions of their future and the part robots might play.

Walking with Robots provided robotics expertise at over 100 events in total, reaching over 80,000 people.The programme has:

•Inspired young people to consider robotics as a career: “I would like to be involved in robotics when I am older” 10 year old male who attended Explore at the Aberystwyth Bandstand

•Caused them to think more deeply about robotics research: “It made me wonder what would happen if we all had one. Would it be good or bad? I don't know” Over-12 Participant attending Heart Robot Event

•Changed attitudes towards robotics and its impact on society: “…they are more involved in the present day than I thought but at a lower intelligence than I'd thought. I feel I am in a better position to now observe future progress of robots” Participant at the young person's robotic vision conference

Dr Lesley Paterson, Head of Public Engagement at The Royal Academy of Engineering, says: “The strategic thinking behind this programme was excellent, and has ensured that this initiative leaves a legacy not only in the number of young people and adults it has engaged through its creative events, but also in the network of robotics researchers for whom public engagement has now become a valued activity that will be continued, reaching further audiences as this field advances.”

Professor Alan Winfield comments: “Robotics is an important technology, which is likely to have an impact over the next twenty years at least equal to that of information technology over the last twenty. To compete and contribute, the UK needs a new generation of young roboticists with the talent, enthusiasm and vision to drive forward UK robotics. Walking with Robots has, we hope, helped to create that new generation while fostering real debate about the kinds of robots that we want in our futures.”

“Walking with Robots has given us the opportunity to present a credible picture of robotics to the public that dispels the dystopian myths and allays their fears”, says Professor Noel Sharkey from the University of Sheffield, “in this way we promote a genuine appreciation of the great innovations in UK robotics.”

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