Friday, March 19, 2010

Expecting the expected on Mars

Learned something new and surprising about Mars rovers (like Spirit and Opportunity, and the planned European rover ExoMars): that if little green Martians jumped up and down in front of the Rover's cameras we almost certainly wouldn't know it. There are two reasons: firstly, the communications links between the Mars rovers and Earth are intermittent and low-bandwidth, so you can't have a live video stream (webcam) from the Rover to Earth and, secondly, the Rover's onboard cameras have image processing software that is programmed to look for specific things, like interesting rocks. This means that the Rover simply wouldn't 'see' the Martians, they are - in a sense - programmed to expect the expected. Although we are used to seeing the amazing panoramic views from the surface of Mars, these still images are only grabbed infrequently so our Martian would have to be standing in front of the Rover at precisely the moment the image is captured for us to see him (it).

I just spent 2 days with a remarkably interesting group of space scientists (planetary geology, exobiology, etc), space industry and roboticists discussing the science and engineering of Mars sample return missions: i.e. to find, collect and then bring interesting Mars rocks back to Earth. Given the immense cost and technical risk of mounting such a mission it seems to me worth the extra small effort of giving the rover(s) systems that would allow them (and us) to notice unexpected or unusual stuff. An image processing module that, for instance, continuously looks for things in the camera's view that are the wrong colour, or shape, moving in a different way to everything else. The whole point of exploration is that you don't know what's there and, while I'm not suggesting there really are Martians (other than perhaps microbes), it does seem to me that we should engineer systems that allow for the possibility of discovering the unexpected.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Robotic Visions in Parliament

I've blogged before about the excellent Robotic Visions project and - yes I admit it - I have a soft spot for Visions: its where public engagement gets political. Yesterday that happened quite literally as Robotic Visions went to Parliament. Representatives from 3 of the schools who were involved in Visions conferences in Newcastle, Oxford and Bristol came, with their teachers, to the Houses of Parliament to present their visions to roboticists, industrialists and of course parliamentarians.

Here's what I said.

"Imagine personal robot instead of personal computer. Imagine in old age you could have a robot nurse. Your grandchildren a robot teddy, that talks to them, reads them a story, and keeps an eye on them at the same time. Right now these things are possibilities but would we - should we - want them?

Intelligent Robotics is a technology likely to impact every aspect of future life and society. Intelligent robots will - for example - change the way we treat illness and look after the elderly, how we run our homes and workplaces, how we manage our waste, harvest our crops or mine for resources and - I’m sorry to say - how we fight our wars. But as we build smarter robots the boundaries between robots as mere machines, and robots as friends or companions, will become blurred - raising new and challenging ethical questions. This may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but robotics technology will have a much greater impact on our children’s generation than on my generation.

So what is it that makes intelligent robots different to other technologies in a way that means we need to have special concerns about their future impact? It is - I suggest - two factors in combination. Firstly, agency - the ability to make decisions without human intervention. And secondly, the ability to draw an emotional response from humans. Right now we have plenty of machines with agency, within limits, like airline autopilots or room thermostats. We also have machines that generate emotional responses: Ferraris or iPods, for example. Intelligent robots are different because they bring these two elements together in a potent new combination that - frankly - we don’t yet fully understand.

It is, therefore, very important that our children should have the opportunity to understand what robots can and can’t do right now, and where intelligent robotics research is taking us. It is important that our children understand and debate the implications of robotics technology, and make their own minds up about how robots should, or should not, be used in society. And it is important that those views should be heard - and taken seriously – by robotics researchers, funders and policy makers.

I have been immensely impressed by the enthusiasm with which teenagers have engaged in the Robotic Visions Conferences. The views that they have expressed are articulate, serious and insightful, and - on behalf of the Robotics Visions project team - I invite you to consider those views and quotes in the summary paper and on the posters in this room, and to meet with their representatives here today."