Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mimetic Factors in Health and Well-being

On Monday I gave a talk at an amazingly interesting workshop in Warwick. Part of a project called Mimetic Factors in Health and Well-being, the workshop brought together a very diverse range of disciplines: sociology, medicine, systems science and robotics (and I may have missed a few).

Project lead, Steve Fuller, gave a great talk which reflected on both memetics (pre-Dawkins), and mimesis in advertising and PR. I found myself being introduced first to French sociologist Gabriel Tarde who, who - according to Steve Fuller - first articulated the pivotal role of imitation in society. Then to contemporary French social and cognitive scientist, and by the looks of it all round genius, Dan Sperber. I can see that I have to add Sperber to my reading list!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Can I have a robot for Christmas?

I was delighted to be asked to give the annual Christmas lecture to the Nottingham Medico Chirurgical society last night, in the medical school of the famous Queens Medical Centre, Nottingham. Founded in 1828 Nottingham Med-Chi, as they like to call themselves, is one of the oldest such societies in the UK. It was a great audience, with a healthy mix of children and very eminent medics who together kept me on my toes when it came to questions and answers.

In my talk I focus on the current strong convergence of biology and robotics, but in reflecting and speaking with the medics afterwards I was struck that the next big convergence in robotics (perhaps the next wave after biology) will be with medicine. As our understanding of the human body and its astonishingly complex processes and mechanisms deepens, then - in a sense - medicine becomes more like ultra precision engineering. And as robotics moves toward artificial life, then engineering robots becomes far removed from mechanical and electrical engineering and more like bio-medical engineering. For a good example look at the BRL's Ecobot III, with all of its plumbing and bio-chemistry. Hence the convergence I predict.

Postscript: the Notts Med-Chi society is very firmly in the 21st C: I discovered my Christmas lecture can be downloaded as a podcast on iTunes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Robot ethics at the EPSRC societal issues panel

Tough afternoon yesterday. Why? I'll come to that. Along with the other senior media fellows, I attended EPSRC's Societal Issues Panel, chaired by Robert Winston. Before getting the invitation I didn't know about this group, but came away very impressed with just how deeply serious EPSRC is about engaging with public attitudes and concerns about science research and the potential societal impact of its funded research programmes.

As the new boy there wasn't much I could contribute to the main session, when the panel wanted to hear from the senior media fellows about their experiences and what more, or differently, the panel could do in its work. But listening to the SMFs experiences was for me incredibly useful. It was like getting a master class from not one but a whole group of virtuosi, concentrated into two hours.

But the tough bit was to follow. Noel Sharkey and I had been asked to stay for another agenda item on the potential ethical and societal impact of intelligent robots, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. Noel and I each gave short introductions to what we thought were the main issues and I focussed on the ethical questions raised by research in intelligent robotics - i.e. the ethical roboticist.

postscript: The Ethical Roboticist

Saturday, November 07, 2009

e-pucks in Osaka

Gave some Walking with Robots talks at an elementary school today, in Ikeda Japan (near Osaka). The e-pucks were a great success with the children, and were joined by some amazing Japanese robots, like Paro - the robot seal. Pictures to follow...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Surrogates: not a review

Surrogates. Not a great movie* but thought provoking in a possible-robot-futures kind of way. The first thing that made it interesting was that the imagined robotic technology doesn't rely on Artificial Intelligence (AI), unlike most robot sci-fi. In that sense, therefore, its fictional future is rather more plausible than most robot movies, although still very challenging. In the Surrogates future humans put on some kind of headset that enables them to see through their robot's cameras, hear through its microphones and (presumably) smell through its olfactory sensors. This is a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI); there are two kinds of BCI, non-invasive - as in this movie, or invasive (the Matrix).

For me, however, the most interesting question raised by the movie is this. If you had the opportunity to live your life through a beautiful robot proxy, so that you see, hear and touch the world not directly but through its senses, and you interact with (most) other people even more indirectly, via their surrogates, would you..? Not just occasionally, for fun, but 24-7 - work and play. Would the experience be so compelling, so addictive, that it justifies spending your days lying prone on a couch jacked into an immersive real-reality, emerging only to pee and eat pizza (delivered presumable by surrogates)? Would social pressures or fashion compel you to surrogate-up, otherwise as a real human - lumpy and unattractive (not you dear reader) - you find yourself in a world of super-model surrogates?

*Although I thoroughly enjoyed it. The plot is thin and predictable but Bruce Willis and his wife (played by Rosamund Pike) are excellent. And the makeup of the human-actors-playing-surrogates provoked in me a not-quite-out-of-the Uncanny Valley response, that really held my attention.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Now I can really focus on Research and Public Engagement

1st October today and a new job within UWE. I'm seconded out of my associate dean role(s) within environment and technology so that I can start my senior media fellowship. At the same time I take on the new role of director of UWE's science communication unit. For the next three years I'll be able to focus all my energy on two things I'm really passionate about: research and public engagement. I feel very privileged to be in this position: I'm very grateful to the EPSRC, to colleagues at UWE for making the space for me to be able to do this, and looking forward to working with the amazing team in the SCU.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Artificial Culture in Warwick

Yesterday we had a full artificial culture project team meeting in Warwick, following on from the EmergeNet meeting on Thursday (see my previous blog post). An excellent meeting, significant because we are now exactly half way through the project. Having spent much of the first two years of the project building the artificial culture lab, the project is now moving into the experimental phase. Having built our microscope we can now start looking through it.

The experimental phase of the project brings new challenges and we spent much of yesterday's meeting discussing and crystallising the detailed research questions that our experiments must address. Of course project team members each have questions and ideas that we want to address within our respective disciplines, but there must be overarching project-wide questions. Alistair led this discussion, wisely warning against the 'so what' problem ("Hey we've discovered x. Hmm interesting, but so what"). Taking a theory motivated approach, Alistair proposes four research questions addressing some key problems with the memetic theory of cultural evolution:
  1. What is the effect of fidelity of imitation on meme transmission?
  2. What is the effect of selection?
  3. What is the effect of size/granularity (of the meme)?
  4. What is the effect of complexity within the meme?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Encyclopaedias and Emergence in Warwick

Here at the University of Warwick this week for the European Conference on Complex Systems.

Unexpectedly, Springer also used the conference to launch their excellent new Encyclopaedia of Complexity and Systems Science. As an author of one of the articles in the encyclopaedia - on Foraging Robots - it was great to see all 11 volumes and my article, in print, for the first time. Editor in chief Bob Meyers did the formal launch last night and (perhaps not suprisingly) there were four or five contributors here in Warwick. Bob called a couple of us out of the audience to say a few words, which was great. I made the points that complexity science is a wonderful unifier of multiple disciplines - everything from cell biology to economics - and that the grand challenge is to find unifying principles of emergence and self-organisation.

Today is the EmergeNET3 workshop. James Crutchfield gave a terrific invited talk about emergence, which he defines as a change in a system's causal architecture. He outlined his computational mechanics framework for analysing emerging patterns, and gave examples from cellular automata. Very interesting, but I was left wondering if Jim's framework would transfer well from the ideal grid-world of cellular automata, to the continuous time and space of swarm robotics, with rather more complex agent behaviours, real-world physics and noise. I suspect not.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Killer robots in the news again

I was interviewed by John Arlidge on Saturday, researching for a piece on the American Association for Artificial Intelligence meeting, earlier reported in the New Scientist with the title Smart machines: what's the worst that could happen.

John's article in the Sunday Times was, in my view, a more-or-less reasonable account of what's actually a rather dull story: a group of senior researchers in AI getting together to discuss setting up ethical and design guidelines for future AI-based systems. Well good. That's what we should expect to happen and, indeed the AAAI group are probably a bit late off the mark. An EU initiative in Roboethics has been underway since 2004/05: here is a recent draft of the EURON Roboethics Roadmap; the South Korean government have been reported to be working on a robot ethics charter, and the venerable International Standards Organisation (ISO) have had a group working for a couple of years now on a new ISO standard for intelligent robots.

Unfortunately a sub-editor (I guess) chose to give the piece the lurid title: Scientists fear a revolt by killer robots. Sorry guys. I know it doesn't make for good headlines but we scientists do not fear a revolt by killer robots.

Yes, autonomous robots will demand some new - possibly radical - approaches to safety, reliability and ethics and, yes, a good deal of effort needs to go into this, but the fact that these efforts are going on is not because of some secret fears of killer robots taking over. Just good engineering practice.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Installing Player/Stage on OS X with MacPorts

Back in 2006 I wrote about installing the excellent Player/Stage robot simulator under Linux, and the problems caused by dependencies (i.e. other packages that need to be installed first, before you can then install Player/Stage). Wouldn't it be great, I wrote, if there were a universal installer programme that would sort out all of these dependencies.

I should explain that since that post I've switched from Linux to OS X, running on a MacBook Pro, and have only just got round to installing Player/Stage. I was very pleased to discover that my plea for a universal installer has been answered by the (almost) excellent MacPorts.

I say almost excellent because installation wasn't completely glitch free.

Here's what I had to do to install to Mac OS X 10.5.7 (Leopard)

1. Download and install XCode (MacPorts depends on it)

2. Download and install MacPorts, install details here

3. In a terminal window run MacPorts with
$ sudo port install playerstage-stage playerstage-player

And wait an hour or so - it takes awhile. However, compilation of playerstage-player fails library not found for -ljpeg. To fix this as detailed here:

4. sudo port install python_select && sudo python_select python25

then re-run step 3.

5. But before you can run Player/Stage there's another fix needed, as detailed here.

sudo ln -s /usr/X11/share/X11/rgb.txt /usr/X11R6/lib/X11/rgb.txt

And that's it. Player/Stage installed.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Letter to the Times Higher

Here is the full text of my letter in this week's THE:


I am dismayed by the poor quality of journalism shown in the article Sandpits bring out worst in infantilised researchers. Of the two academics quoted the first, Professor Docherty, hasn't been to a sandpit; a second, unnamed, researcher apparently hadn't either, instead reporting what some bloke had said to him at a conference. Come on THE, you can do better than this. It can't be that hard to find one or two participants prepared to offer opinions on the record, from the 25 sandpits so far. The piece is depressing also in its use of the pejorative trope 'reality-TV' without justifying it. I recall nothing even vaguely reality-TV-like about the sandpit I attended. And micromanaged? Yes the the week was skilfully managed – but how else can you go from 30 more or less complete strangers to coherent project teams and amazing proposals in 5 days? In fact there was a significant level of self-organisation going on within the sandpit framework. And what on earth is wrong with the word sandpit? The key to creativity is working with people outside your own discipline, outside your intellectual comfort zone; the analogy with play and exploration is apt. To be brought together with 30 very, very smart people and asked to think about big research questions is exhilarating, not infantilising.

Yours faithfully

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Robotic Visions at At-Bristol

The first Robotic Visions conference has started here in the Science Learning Centre of At-Bristol! We have around 25 students from 4 schools. As the day progresses I'll be posting updates, and some pictures, here:

2.00pm The five groups have come up with their big issues:
  1. Robots looking after us
  2. Robots Venturing into Space
  3. Robot Family and Friends (companions)
  4. Robot Teachers and Trainers
  5. Equal access to Robot Technology for rich and poor
What a great set of issues. Especially the last one.

5.00pm We just finished the celebration session in which the five groups presented their findings and recommendations to the invited VIPs. Four of the groups elected to have show and tell presentations with posters and written material - all of which were brilliant. The 'equal access' group, instead read out a powerful and moving statement that was both critical of technology for technology's sake, when set against real issues such as poverty, while at the same time calling for a strong ethical approach to robotics. Hopefully I can get hold of a copy of that statement and post it here.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Scratchbot in the news

Check our this Youtube video of the amazing Scratchbot built my my colleagues at the Bristol Robotics Lab:

This robot not only has artificial whiskers, that 'whisk' just like real rodents' whiskers, but even more amazingly it processes the sense data from the whiskers with a high-fidelity electronic model of the barrel cortex - the small part of the rat's brain that processes sensory input from its whisker's. If you look carefully you can see the micro-vibrissae - the small extra-sensitive non-whisking whiskers at the robot's snout.

Here's the full story on the EU Cordis news service.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Chimpanzee culture on Material World

There was a great piece on this afternoon's Material World - an interview with Andrew Whiten about cultural traditions in chimpanzees. Andrew Whiten makes the very interesting observation that while many animals appear to have 'traditions' (i.e. separate groups of the same bird species with different birdsong), chimpanzee have dozens of traditions. Does this mean that chimps have culture? I think so, yes.

Chimp culture appears, however, to have remained relatively static - Whiten observes that archeological investigation has shown traditions to have persisted for hundreds if not thousands of years. Longer, I would suspect, given that anatomically modern chimps have been around for over six million years. In other words, the big bang of human cultural evolution has never happened for chimps. What cognitive deficit in chimps might account for this..?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Artificial Culture web pages now up

Check out our new Artificial Culture project web pages:

These have been built using Google Sites. A remarkably straightforward way to create both the structure and content for a set of web pages, without HTML coding (actually I did have to tweak the code a couple of times). Integration with other Google applications means, for instance, that creating a slide show of images needs you only to upload the images to a Picasa album, then insert the slideshow gadget and point to the Picasa URL. Add another image to the album and it automatically appears in your web site slide show.

There is one limitation: while invited collaborators can sign-in and add comments - in blog fashion - to existing posts (as well as create and edit new pages), ordinary visitors to the web site cannot. Given that blog functionality is clearly built into the sites technology, it ought to be straightforward to provide an option to allow comments to be submitted, to selected pages, by non signed-in visitors. Or a blog gadget. Google..?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Autonomous robots with guns are a bad idea

Check out Noel Sharkey's excellent piece describing the depressingly relentless 'advance' of offensive robots, in today's Daily Telegraph: March of the Killer Robots.

Like Noel I am profoundly worried by the weaponisation of robots.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Robotics a key future industry

Great to see an independent report listing robotics as one of the key future industry sectors for the UK in today's Guardian: uk industry set to put its best robotic foot forward. (Notice also the brilliant photograph of the amazing hand on the BRL/Elumotion robot BERTI.)

There's clearly something in the air because just a couple of days ago blogs were discussing the launch of a US National Robotics Technology roadmap. Here's an interesting quote from the briefing paper "robotech represents one of the few technologies capable in the near term of building new companies and creating new jobs and in the long run of addressing issues of critical national importance".

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Artificial Culture in Prague

I'm here at the brilliant European Union conference Science beyond Fiction, and yesterday gave my talk in the session on Collective Robotics: adaptivity, co-evolution, robot societies. I was pretty nervous because (a) this is my first talk on the Artificial Culture project to a international audience of senior researchers and (b) the project is still in its early development stages so we don't yet have any results. However, I'm pleased to say the talk went down well and I had some great questions - followed by conversations late into the evening.

Here is a movie of my presentation slides:

One of the questions was about robot imitation: are the robots learning to imitate, or have we pre-programmed them with imitation? My answer was that we have hand-coded imitation, in other words, our robots are endowed with an imitation instinct. You have to start somewhere, I argued, and this seems a good place to start and will initially allow us to study meme-evolution in our robot society in isolation from robot adaptation. While my questioners agreed, they also suggested that the evolution of imitation would also be really interesting, and encouraged us to - in effect - turn the evolutionary clock a little further back in our robot model of the emergence of culture.

Here are all of my blog posts on this project so far.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Robotic Visions goes nationwide

Really great news. We learned today that our EPSRC bid to take Robotic Visions nationwide has been granted.

Let me explain what Robotic Visions is. About a year and a half ago we (that is Walking with Robots) ran an event in London called the Young Person's Visions conference, co-organised with the excellent London Engineering Project and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE). We brought about 20 young people - aged between 16-18 - to the grand setting of the RAE for 2 days and asked them to think and talk about what kind of robotics technology they would like in their future. They met with and took evidence from roboticists, in much the same way that a parliamentary select committee does, and at the end formed and agreed a set of recommendations. Those recommendations have now been published by the RAE to inform senior members of the academy and other policy-makers: click here to see that report.

See my blog post on that event here: the future doesn't just happen - we must own it. The new grant will now allow us to run the same kind of event in other venues across the UK: Bristol, Newcastle, Aberystwyth, Glasgow and Oxford.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Emergence in Glasgow

Just returned from the excellent 2nd EmergeNet meeting, in Glasgow. EmergeNet is an EPSRC funded network of projects and people linked by an interest in emergence. As the Wikipedia article states, the phenomenon of emergence has been known about for a long time, but it still defies a proper scientific definition. In other words a definition that allows you to look at some complex phenomena and say yes, this is true emergence, but that isn't, and to measure the strength of the emergence (if indeed that is possible).

The reason a rigourous definition of emergence is important is that we can now contemplate designing complex systems that exploit emergence. A swarm robotics system is, for instance, a designed system which relies on emergence but - within the framework of complexity science - many other systems, from molecular to economic, would benefit from a deep understanding of emergence.

There were some truly excellent talks at EmergeNet2 - I'll add a link here when the presentations are online. But from one of those talks here is a link to an astonishing YouTube video from EmergeNet leader Lee Cronin and his team, showing (if I understand it correctly) controlled inorganic crystalline growth of molecular tubes - which looks remarkably organic.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Symbrion debates @Stuttgart

In Stuttgart, at the University, for a Symbrion project meeting. Its been a really tough meeting - which is hardly surprising given that we're one year in and - next month - have the big end-of-first-year review meeting in Prague. So a major part of the meeting has been a dress rehearsal for the review.

However, spending a day and a half with a group of very smart people is always a pleasure, and there were some really interesting issues to debate. One concerns the fundamental question of how much of the Symbrion system should be designed and how much evolved (using evolutionary computing techniques). One could take a purist view and aim to evolve every aspect. My own view is more pragmatic. I think that achieving the aims of the Symbrion project is going to be so difficult that we should resort to artificial evolution only for the parts of the system that we can't design, because we don't know how.

Also, I think there's a 'biological plausibility' argument for taking the pragmatic view. The Symbrion system will be both a swarm of individual robots, behaving like a swarm, and - following self-assembly - a multi-cellular organism, behaving as a single organism. Swarm and organism have, I think, radically different control paradigms; the former fully decentralised and dependent on mechanisms of emergence and self-organisation, the latter centralised and coordinated (by a central nervous system). Of course ant genes must both contain the instructions to build multi-cellular animals (the ants with CNSs and coordinated control, e.g. for walking), and their behaviours which give rise to the colony's collective swarm intelligence. However, Symbrion goes beyond anything seen in nature. We want the Symbrion robots to sometimes behave like complicated ant-like creatures, and sometimes behave like complicated cells in a complex body (that can perform useful coordinated functions). I think if such a thing were possible to be evolved it would have been (except for the fascinating but much-simpler-than-Symbrion case of the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum sometimes self-assembling into multicellular structures).

This is why I think engineering a single evolutionary process that can evolve both swarm intelligent control and centralised coordinated control is asking too much.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

E-puck imitation

Last week we made a significant breakthrough in the Artificial Culture project. My student Mehmet Erbas demonstrated robot robot imitation for the first time. To be more precise: one e-puck robot first watching another e-puck perform a sequence of movements, then (attempting to) imitate the same sequence of movements. This sounds much easier than it is. It's difficult for two reasons. Firstly, because the e-puck can't see very well. It only has one eye - so no stereo vision and no depth information. Thus we make it easier for the robots to see each other by fitting coloured skirts in primary colours. Secondly, the robot has to translate what it has seen (which amounts to a coloured blob moving left to right and/or getting larger or smaller within its field of vision) into a set of motor commands so it can copy those movements. This transformation is what researchers in imitation in humans and animals call the correspondence problem.

Mehmet has solved these problems with some very neat coding, and the demonstration shows the the imitated dance is - on most runs - a remarkably good copy of the original. We're now figuring out how to measure the quality of imitation Qi so we can get some results and understand the average Qi, and its variance.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

WWR @ Disneyland in January

Just gave a Walking with Robots talk for about 450 school children, at Disneyland, Paris. The Gaumont cinema to be precise, on the Disneyland complex. This was the first time I've given a talk in a cinema - with my slides projected onto the giant sized cinema screen behind me!

My audience, who I discovered had been bussed from various schools across the UK, were attending a Royal Institution Study Experience - a kind of science winter camp. Even allowing for the cold and grey January weather - what a great way to spend a few days of intensive hands-on science.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Robots for Risky Interventions

Returning on the Eurostar from a really interesting workshop in Brussels, on Robots for Risky Interventions and Environmental Surveillance (RISE 09). The focus of the workshop was a number of EU funded projects aimed at developing multi-robot systems in safety-critical applications. One project called GUARDIANS, led by Jacques Penders at Sheffield-Hallam, is aimed at providing firefighters with robot outriders, providing sensing and navigation that - in effect - give the firefighter extended super-senses. I learned that one of the most dangerous situations they have to deal with is large warehouse fires which quickly fill with smoke, making it very easy for firefighters to become lost and disoriented in the labyrinth of aisles between storage racks. But the flat smooth warehouse floor and grid like layout is of course ideal for mobile robots, making this a really good application for robots to prove themselves useful in a serious and worthwhile real-world task.

I gave a talk setting out the potential of using a swarm robotics approach to safety-critical applications. The swarm approach differs from the conventional multi-robot systems approach in its control paradigm. A multi-robot system will typically use a centralised command and control system to both direct the actions of individual robots and coordinate the whole group. In contrast a swarm uses a completely decentralised, distributed approach, in which each robot decides how to act autonomously - using local sensing and communication with neighbouring robots - so that the swarm self-organises to achieve the overall task or mission. Although the robots may look the same in both cases, the swarm approach is radically different from a systems control point of view. But the swarm approach offers the potential of much higher resilience to failure (of individual robots, for instance).