Issue date: 22 September 2004

ISSUE DATE: 22/09/04

Would you like to have your house cleaned automatically by a robot? Would you trust a robot babysitter? Do you think you could fancy a robot partner? If a fully-functional, thinking robot could be developed, would you consider it human?

‘Robot Thought? – Thinking about Robots’ is an event designed to challenge and stimulate public thinking about the latest developments in robotics.

Using the latest Sony ‘Aibo’ robot dog in a mini-drama, UWE scientists will bring to life some of the key present-day issues in robotics, and involve the audience in a discussion about the practical, personal and social implications of this new technology.

Researchers at the University of the West of England have been awarded £13,516 funding by the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) to create an event aimed at engaging family audiences in discussion and debate relating to science and engineering. The event will initially be performed on 28 and 29 October in Explore-At-Bristol and it is hoped that if successful this event can be replicated for other audiences.

The researchers leading the enterprise are Professor Alan Winfield (Professor of Electronic Engineering at UWE), Dr Karen Bultitude (Research Associate in the Graphic Science Unit), and Dr Dylan Evans, who leads UWE’s new BSc degree in Robotics and is the author of several popular science books. Communication expertise is provided by the Graphic Science Unit at UWE, a well known science communication consultancy with a great deal of national and international experience at taking science to public audiences using innovative means.

Speaking about the proposed event Alan said, “Here at UWE we have one of the largest and most highly regarded robotics research portfolios in the UK. We also have a long history of finding ways of taking the expertise of our scientists and academics to non-specialist audiences through demonstration lectures and events. I am very excited about this event as it will give people the opportunity to ask questions about robots and the future of robotics. Research has shown that having a discussion about science issues and ethics is one of the best ways of encouraging greater interest in science and engineering amongst young people*.”

The Director of Graphic Science, Professor Frank Burnet, says, “A major market has recently been established for robots designed for recreational purposes. One of the best known examples is Sony’s robotic dog, the Aibo. These have increased public interest in robotics, and an opportunity exists to build on this foundation to draw the public into considering both the engineering challenges and ethical issues that are raised by work in the field. These two topics are strongly linked because the public tend to overestimate the technical capabilities of existing robots, and consequently have concerns about them that are based more on science fiction than science fact.”


Editor’s notes

1. *A recent student-led review of the national science curriculum (commissioned by Planet Science in 2002) concluded that having a discussion or debate was the most effective way of learning, whilst 57% of students surveyed agreed that introducing discussions about philosophy and ethics would definitely make GCSE science subjects more attractive as a subject. This project should therefore encourage greater interest in science and engineering amongst young people attending the session.

2. The Graphic Science Unit, at the University of the West of England, is one of the most innovative and original science communication teams in the UK. Graphic Science specialises in taking science directly to the public, running a large number of projects both within the UK and internationally. The Unit is well known within the UK science communication community for its advocacy of greater audience research and targeting, and a long-standing commitment to audience and context sensitive communications projects.

3. The proposed project builds on a successful event format previously developed by the Graphic Science Unit, entitled Meet the Mighty Gene Machine. This event involves a mini-drama centred on the issues surrounding genetic screening, followed by facilitated discussion with the audience to generate debate of the issues raised in the drama. Meet the Mighty Gene Machine, MGM, has a TV talk show format and is set in the future.

5. The Project Team: Professor Alan Winfield, Dr Karen Bultitude, Dr Dylan Evans and Professor Frank Burnet

6. At-Bristol, a registered charity, has won nine awards since opening in 2000 including the Good Britain Guide 2001's 'Family Attraction of the Year' and 'Large Attraction of the Year' in the England in Excellence Awards South West. It consists of three attractions: Explore-At-Bristol – a hands-on science centre, IMAX® Theatre-At-Bristol - the largest cinema screen in the west of England and Wildwalk-At-Bristol - a journey from the origins of life to the ends of the Earth.

At-Bristol is a Landmark Millennium Attraction whose principal partners include the Millennium Commission (£44.3 million), the South West of England Regional Development Agency (£17.1 million) and Bristol City Council (£15.7 million).

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