Robotics Q&A

With grateful thanks to I'm a Scientist get me out of here and their terrific inquisitors.

How will robots benefit our society?
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Wow, that’s a big question. I think a good place to start is how robotics is benefiting society now. There are already perhaps a million robots in factories and warehouses – so if you think that making cars and washing machines, or getting your stuff from the Amazon warehouse ready to send you, are a good thing then those robots are benefiting society. Other robots help us by going to places that humans can’t go – like deep under the ocean to repair oil wells, or to do planetary exploration like the amazing Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some robots help people much more directly like the surgical robot called Da Vinci – some operations in this country are now routinely carried out by a robot controlled by a surgeon.

However, some things that we would like robots to be able to do are still too difficult. A good example is search and rescue. Imagine a collapsed building in an earthquake (like the one a few weeks ago in New Zealand). As you know it’s incredibly dangerous for the rescue workers to try and find survivors. It would be really great if the rescue workers could first send a swarm of small and light robots to search all of the spaces in the collapsed building for survivors, give first aid to the survivors directly, allow the rescue workers to see and talk to them and, at the same time, provide the rescue workers with a 3D map of the collapsed building and where the survivors are so that they can then carefully dig them out. I think that search and rescue robots like these would be an incredible benefit to society.

Search and rescue is just one example of how I think robots will benefit society in the near future. There are many others, for instance robots to sort and recycle waste (like real life WALL-E robots) or robots to clean up pollution such as oil spills. A whole other class of robots are those that will work alongside people as workmates, for instance helping to care for elderly or disabled people. However, care robots are not only technically difficult to design and build – so that they are completely safe and reliable – but they also raise ethical questions. How would you feel, for instance, if you had a disabled relative who was looked after by someone with a robot helper? So, for some applications of robots in the near future, we will need to think about ethical questions before we decide if the robots will really benefit our society.

What is the most advanced robot that exists and could you build it?
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Well that’s a hard question. There are alot of robots in the world (probably around 8 million), and although many of them are not very advanced it’s still hard to choose just one. Part of the problem is that you need to decide what you mean by advanced. Some robots are very mechanically advanced, others are mechanically simple but have more advanced artificial intelligence. Some are remotely operated by humans, and others are completely autonomous – in other words decide what to do entirely on their own.

I think I’m going to give you two answers. The first is a driverless car. You may not think it is a robot – but it is. This car – called Boss – won the 2007 DARPA urban grand challenge. It drove for 60 miles around a complex route – obeying all the traffic rules – while responding to other traffic and road users – completely autonomously. Really amazing. You can read about Boss – and the other grand challenge winners here:

The other advanced robot is called Cronos and was designed and built by an old friend, Professor Owen Holland. Cronos looks scary because he’s humanoid, about 7 feet tall, and has one big eye in his head. Owen designed Cronos to investigate how robots with very complicated bodies can learn how to control themselves. Owen’s theory is that all complex bodies (robots and humans) need internal models of themselves and Cronos has a very sophisticated computer simulation of itself which acts as an internal model. This allows Cronos to learn how to control it’s incredibly complex – and floppy – body to do things like pick up a cup. (This may sound easy but really it’s not.) You can read about Cronos here:

Could I build these robots? Maybe, but it would take alot of time, and money – and I would have to learn new advanced robotic techniques.

Will your research help understand how our brain works?
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Hmm. That’s a good question. I would say that in my own research the answer is no. That’s because in my robots I am not trying to model brains. However if you had said ‘will your research help understand how intelligence works’ then I would have said yes. I’m very interested in how intelligent behaviour arises, and I think it’s as much to do with bodies as brains, and also the environment. In other words I think you are intelligent because you have a body and a brain and you are in (and have been brought up in) a rich complex environment (i.e. the world). In my robots I try to model how simple brains (i.e. robots with very simple programmed rules) still give rise to complex ‘intelligent’ behaviour when they are in physical robot bodies that interact with other physical robots and with their environment. If you’re interested in the question of robot intelligence I wrote about this on my blog here:

ps. There are other roboticists in our lab in Bristol who *are* trying to understand how brains work by modelling (very small) parts of the rat’s brain. They have built a robot model of the rat’s whiskers and the part of it’s brain that process the information from the whiskers. It’s an amazing project and you can find out more about it here:

Can a robot develop feelings and emotions? Do robots have common sense?
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Great question. Well we can already build robots that behave ‘as if’ they have feelings and emotions. Of course they don’t really – they are pretending – just like human actors. (Actually as an aside I think that could be an ethical problem with robotics because I’m worried about people thinking that a robot likes them, or cares for them, when in fact it’s just behaving as if it does.)

The other part of your question is interesting about common sense. Robots mostly do not have any common sense at all right now. In fact they hardly have any sense at all! But I have a student right now who is working on a project to give a robot a sense of safety, so that it knows that some actions might potentially hurt someone and therefore stops itself from making those actions.

Here’s another answer about whether robots could become more like humans:

Do you think that robots could ever be more clever then humans?
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Yes I do, but not for a very long time – much much longer that some people predict. The problem you see, is that we don’t understand how the human brain works. We understand some things about it, of course, but not about how intelligence really works. We don’t know for instance how it is that you know that you’re you. We don’t know how human emotions work, and the relationship between emotional intelligence and rational (logical) intelligence. We don’t understand how you make decisions, or learn to ride a bike, or how you can recall facts or what the brain mechanisms are that make you laugh at jokes. One very fundamental thing we don’t understand are the brain mechanisms that allow human babies to learn language so easily and quickly.

Some experts in Artificial Intelligence think that human level AI is only a few decades away from being developed. I think they are completely wrong – in my view it will be hundreds of years into the future (too far to be able to predict). One of the reasons they give is that computers are getting faster and faster every year. It’s true that computers are getting very fast – but just having fast computers isn’t enough to solve the problem of AI. Computer power is like raw material, but having lots of raw material isn’t enough. Imagine you had a huge pile of Italian marble – does that mean you can make a Cathedral? No, it doesn’t – you need the design, as well as the raw materials. And the fact is, we don’t have the design for human-level AI. Or even AI equivalent to much simpler animals.

That doesn’t mean we can’t work out the design eventually. It’s just a very very hard problem that will take a very long time.

Sorry if I’ve rambled on but this is a question I get asked alot (and I’m sorry if my answer might be a disappointment to you).

Do you believe truly that Robots can be just like a human? Do they have all of the 5 senses?
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That’s a very good question. The short answer is no, I don’t think robots can be exactly like humans. However, I do think that in the future android robots could be a very very good copy – perhaps even such a good copy that it would be hard to tell the difference. However, even these robot will always be an artificially created imitation of humans. I wrote another answer here about how long it will take (in my view) before we have robots with human level intelligence

The other part of your question is about sense. In fact humans have more than 5 senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch). We have, for instance, a sense of balance – the thing that stops you falling over when you walk or run. We also have an internal sense of where the parts of our bodies are, in other words you can feel where your arms, hands and so on are in relation to your body. The technical word for this sense is proprioception. In fact, there is alot of disagreement over exactly how many senses humans have – most agree it is at least 7 but some people think we have as many as 30 different senses.

We can already make robots with the senses of sight (with a camera), hearing (with microphones) and touch. We can give robots a sense of smell with special olfactory chips – although these are not so commonly used in robots. And many robots have senses that humans don’t have, for instance being able to sense distances with infra-red light, or with lasers. Some robots can sense distance using ultrasound – like a bat. We have a robot in our lab – called Scratchbot – that has artificial whiskers so it ‘sees’ by feeling the world around it with it’s whiskers, just like a rat or hamster. So, many robots already have quite a few different senses – even the small robots I use in my research called e-pucks (you can see a picture on my profile) have 4 senses – sight, hearing, touch (with infra-red) and balance. But having said that robots are still far behind most animals in the number of sense organs they have (think of all the millions of nerves in your skin that allow you to feel touch all over your body). Robots are also far far behind animals and humans in being able to make sense of what they see, or hear or feel with their senses.

I hope this answers your question!

Do you think that us humans could ever start turning like robots and get all high tech like robots?
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That’s a very good question. The short answer is yes I do – in fact I think that as robots get more advanced, humans will get more enhanced so that – in the far future – it may be hard to tell the difference between robots and enhanced humans.

This may seem an odd thing to say, but remember that we humans already have quite a few high tech enhancements. I (and lots of other people) have a low tech sensory enhancement – called a pair of spectacles. Although we take specs (or contact lenses) for granted imagine living life without them? Although my eyesight is not so bad – I certainly wouldn’t be able to do normal things like drive a car or go to the cinema without them. A real high tech enhancement that people with heart problems have is called a pacemaker. It’s something that sends small electrical impulses which regulate the heart’s rhythm. Another enhancement that some deaf people have is called a cochlear implant – an amazing device that connects a microphone to nerves deep in the cochlear to enable profoundly deaf people to hear. So you see the idea of surgically adding electronic devices to humans to compensate for problems is already well accepted.

Another example is people who have lost parts of their arms or legs, perhaps because of accidents or because they have been soldiers wounded in action. Replacements for missing hands, arm, feet and legs, called prostheses, are now very high tech devices and – in fact – often made by the very same companies that make robots. This is not surprising because the engineering of artificial arms or hands is very similar if you are making humanoid robots or prosthetic devices for humans. One such company we work with in our lab is called Elumotion

The interesting thing is that these artificial arms, hands and legs are beginning to get to the stage when they are – in some respect – better than the original, natural limbs. A good example is the runner Oscar Pistorius who has two artificial (lower) legs and feet that are so good that he can run much faster than most people with their own natural legs – so good in fact that he was banned from competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

This means that in the near future (probably within 20 years) prosthetic limbs will be better than their natural counterparts. It’s possible therefore that some people might deliberately want to have their own limbs amputated so they can for example run faster or longer, have much stronger hands, lift heavier weights, etc, in other words become super-human. So – sooner than you think – humans might be able to become more like robots. But is this ethically acceptable? Should people be allowed to enhance themselves in this way? This is quite a difficult question, but one that I think society will need to face quite soon. What do you think?

Great question thank you.

What ethical rules are there in place for robots and their capabilities?
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This is a really great question thank you. The short answer is that – right now – there aren’t any ethical rules for robots. So, providing you – or your robots – don’t break the law then right now you could use robots for pretty much anything.

I’m one of a group of roboticists who think that this situation is wrong. We think that even though robots are not very advanced right now (i.e. not very intelligent) we still need ethical rules for how robots are used. In fact, I argue that it’s *because* robots are not very smart we need ethical rules. Take a robot with a gun as an extreme example. Would you trust a robot with the intelligence of an ant, with a gun? I very much doubt it. But there are some people in the world fitting robots with guns.

I’m part of a group of people, which includes lawyers and moral philosophers (ethicists) as well as scientists and engineers, who are drawing up an ethical code for how robots should be used. We have published a first draft here: Principles of Robotics.

Would it be possible to train/build a robot that is able to fight in wars?
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That’s a good question rs98 and it’s something some roboticists – including me – worry about a great deal. The first thing to say is that it depends on what you mean by a robot. Some missiles already have alot of ‘intelligence’ built in, cruise missiles for instance can find their own way to their target. So, in a sense, cruise missiles are already semi-autonomous robots fighting in wars.

However, I guess you probably mean robots fighting instead of, or alongside, soldiers. Here again there are already remotely controlled robots in use to help soldiers with bomb disposal, or to go into buildings and allow the soldiers to see inside the building (through the robot’s cameras) before the soldier goes into the building themselves. However, these robots can’t learn, are not intelligent at all, and are remotely controlled by the human soldiers.

But – and here’s the worrying part – there are some people who think that it’s ok to put a gun on a robot and use robots for fighting. I (and a number of other roboticists) think that’s a very bad idea indeed. There are two main reasons I think it’s a bad idea (apart from weapons generally being not-a-good-thing for humanity). The first is that if the robot with a gun is remotely controlled by the human, then the human has to make a decision about aiming and firing the gun based on what he or she sees through its cameras. The problem with this is that it’s very hard to really see and understand what’s going on in the battle when you’re not there and just looking through a robot’s cameras – and so I think you will be more likely to make mistakes and shoot either innocent civilians or soldiers on your own side.

The second reason I think it’s a bad idea is if the robot-with-a-gun is not remotely controlled by a human but ‘autonomous’. In other words the robot decides, on its own, where to aim its gun and when to fire. Of course there are serious ethical and legal problems with this, like who is responsible if the robot makes a mistake and shoots the wrong person. But I won’t go into those here. Instead I’ll explain the basic technical problem which is – in a nutshell – that robot’s are way too stupid to be given the autonomy to make the decision about what to shoot and when. Even the smartest autonomous mobile robots around today are not much smarter than an insect. Would you trust a robot with the intelligence of an ant, with a gun? I know I wouldn’t. I’m not sure I would even trust a robot with the intelligence of a chimpanzee (probably the next smartest animals to humans) with a gun. And we are a long long way from making robots as clever as chimpanzees. Robot with human-level intelligence are I think hundreds of years into the future, I wrote about that here

Personally I would like to see international laws passed that prohibit the use of robots with guns (a robot arms limitation treaty). What do you think?

Do you think your work will change the world or will it only affect a few people?
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Well like most researchers I would like to think that my work will change the world, but – if I’m honest – it’s unlikely. As I said in a previous answer to a similar question ( very few scientists really change the world. Most (hopefully) make small contributions to making the world a better place. My current work in robotics will – I hope – lead eventually to robots that help people in all sorts of ways. But I say ‘eventually’ because my work is on the basic principles of robotics – not on final real-world robots – so I hope that the new principles I develop will be used by others. Also, like most scientists, I work in teams so my contribution is part of a big team effort. A good example is the Symbrion project – a project to design robots that can self-assemble into new 3D shapes. If you look at the project web pages you will see there are 10 universities in the Symbrion project:

So if I’m honest I think my research will probably not change the world, but it will – I hope – affect more that just a few people – eventually.

ps. In an answer to another similar question I talked about how my work in industry has helped change peoples lives (a bit)

Do your robots ever rebel and take over the world?
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No, well not yet anyway! The first thing to say is that robots are designed things – we invented and built them – so unless you’re an evil genius (and I don’t think I am) why would you build robots that even can rebel and take over the world?

Secondly – and perhaps more seriously – in the future when robots are much more powerful than they are now then we will need to be very careful – not about them rebelling – but about them accidentally doing something wrong and it getting out of hand. Imagine we could make really tiny – almost invisible – robots that could fly, for example. Then you let them lose and somehow lose control of them. They could do some damage I expect – so that’s why some roboticists like me work on the safety and reliability of intelligent robots.

What's the best robot you made so far
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Hah, good question. I think the best robot I have made so far – or helped to make – is the LinuxBot. This was a robot that we built about 12 years ago to do research in swarm robotics. Now we can buy robots to do this research but then we had no choice but to invent our own. The LinuxBot is about the size of a dinner plate and had two wheels – each with its own motor – so that it can turn on the spot. It was one of the first robots in the world with the computer operating system Linux running inside it – which meant that we could run powerful programs and connect to the robot over a wireless network. That would be easy nowadays but 12 years ago we had to work really hard to build these robots. Here are some old pictures of the LinuxBot:
(I especially like the one at the bottom with stereo cameras.)

And here is another page with lots of old lab pictures, many with swarms of LinuxBots running in our arena:

How has the engineering of robots changed in the last 10yrs?

Good question. In our lab in Bristol it’s changed hugely – the reason is that we now make most of the parts for our robots by printing then on 3D printers. More than 10 years ago we would have to make the parts out of metal, which took much longer. Now, if a researcher needs a new part for his or her robot they can ask Sam, our 3D printer genius. Sam will draw the part that they describe on a Computer Aided Design (CAD) system on a computer and if the researcher thinks it looks right Sam will send it to the RP (rapid prototyping) machine to be printed – which may take nearly a day if it’s a large part. But still much faster than it used to.

The brilliant think about using 3D printers is that our robots now have much more interesting shapes because it’s just as easy to make complicated curves structures as ones with flat lines or angles.

In fact you can now get really low cost 3D printers – you should try and persuade your school to get one. Then you could design and print your own robots too!

Can you build me a robot to tidy my room so i have more time to do my science homework?
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Hah! Yes that would be great!

In fact vacuum cleaner robots already exist – an example is iRobot’s Roomba robot. The problem is the Roomba can only vacuum the floor and nothing else – it can’t put away your stuff, fold your clothes, put your pizza boxes in the bin, clean the windows, make the bed – or any of the other things to really properly tidy your room.

To do that you would need a kind of general purpose intelligent ‘butler’ robot. I’m afraid that, right now, we cannot build such a robot, although it may be possible in the future (but not for some years).

The reason is that a general purpose intelligent butler-bot, like the ones in the move i-Robot, are very hard indeed to design and build – and way beyond our current technology. The main reason is not the mechanical design because we can already build quite life-like person sized ‘humanoid’ or ‘android’ robots. Thus, we can already make the butler-bot’s ‘body’.

The problem is butler-bot’s artificial ‘brain’. Although you might think that some of the tasks that you would want your butler-bot to perform are quite simple, like making the bed for instance, in fact they are really complicated. To see just how complicated here’s a simple experiment you can do yourself. Ask you brother or sister, or a friend, to pretend to be a robot. They will not move at all unless you issue very precise commands, like ‘move left arm up 6 cm’ or ‘open right hand’. You will quickly find that even getting them to move their hands to your duvet, gripping it, and then pulling it in the right directions to make the bed, takes loads of precise commands. And a butler-bot would have to work out how to do all of this on its own.

For these reasons, most current robots are not general purpose robots that can do everything, but robots that do only one thing, like the vacuum cleaning robot I mentioned earlier. I think that we will have more and more robots in our homes in the next few years, but these will not be general purpose butler-bots, instead they will be much simpler robots that just do one or two things, like cleaning the floor, or keeping watch on your house if you’re away, or perhaps helping with weeding your garden.

Great question! I hope this helps to answer it.

Will you're research help us in any way?
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Well I hope so! If I didn’t think that my research was helpful in some (small) way then I wouldn’t do it. (I’m very lucky that because I work in a University I don’t have to work on things just because my boss tells me to!)

Science is so huge that very few scientists can make big breakthroughs that really change the world (like inventing the Internet, or discovering the structure of DNA). For ordinary scientists like me the way that our research helps is in small ways that – hopefully – add together with other researcher’s work in order to make a difference.

In my robotics research one of the things I’ve been working on for awhile is how to make swarms of robots safe and reliable. With my students I wrote a paper in 2006 called ‘safety in numbers: fault tolerance in robot swarms’. Alot of people would find this quite boring, but other robotics researchers have taken our work and continued to build on it so that – hopefully – future swarm robot systems (like search and rescue robots) will be safe and reliable (which – I hope you will agree – is quite important).

So, in the kind of research I do it’s very difficult to point to one thing and say “this discovery or invention is really going to change the world”. Instead you do the best work you can – working with others – and hope that it will contribute to making the world a better place.

Aren't robots awesome?
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Yes, I agree - robots are awesome - I'm very glad you think so too.

We have some awesome robots in our lab in Bristol. One of my favourite is called EcoBot, it's a robot that eats food. In fact the latest version is the world's first robot to have a complete artificial digestive system, called EcoBot III. It even has it's own litter tray! Here is a web page about EcoBot III

Another awesome robot has artificial whiskers - called Scratchbot:

I also mentioned some other really cool robots in another question - What is the most advanced robot that exists and could you build it?

Would it be possible to use semi conscious robots to replace certain animals in a ecosystem if they became extinct (to control pests or balance the ecosystem etc)?
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Wow, what a great question! I’m really going to have to think about this one.

I think the answer is probably yes – but it’s not something we could do now. In fact there’s a famous science fiction book called “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K Dick. In the book real animals have become more or less extinct and people have robot animals instead. The main character Rick Deckard has a robot sheep that lives on the roof of his apartment. It’s a shame that in the movie made from the book, Blade Runner, there’s no mention of Rick’s electric sheep (even though it’s a brilliant movie).

There are lots of reasons that we can’t make robot animals that can live in the natural environment. I can’t go through them all here but one is that the robot animals would have to eat food. In fact, in the Bristol Robotics lab, we are building robots that can get their energy from eating food. They are called EcoBots and you can read about them here:

As you can see from the pictures these robots don’t look anything like animals. There’s a very long way to go before we could build robots that can actually live in the natural environment – and how they would eat is just one of the problems. Of course there’s also a serious ethical question here: even if we could build them would it be a good idea to have robot animals in the natural environment?

How is your work going to change people’s lives?

I hope that my work is changing people’s lives, but – like most scientists and engineers – those changes are quite small and rather invisible. When I worked in industry I helped to design and build a number of radio systems that are helping to make some transport systems and emergency services safer. To give you an example about 20 years ago I was part of a small team that designed part of one of the radio communication systems in the Channel Tunnel. So, although I can’t say that this has changed peoples lives, I think it’s fair to say it has made a small contribution to making the world a little safer.

I gave an answer to a similar question already, and talked there about how it’s very difficult for scientists and engineers to make big – world changing – breakthroughs on their own. Here I talk about how I think my current research in robotics might help to change people’s lives (again, in a small way):

Why do you think your topic is important?
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Yes Jack I do. That’s not because I’m big headed or arrogant – it’s just that if I thought my work was useless or unimportant then I just wouldn’t do it. In fact I definitely wouldn’t be doing it because I wouldn’t have been awarded the money to do the robotics work I do.

Having said that – I don’t think robotics research is more or less important than other fields of research. The problems facing humanity are huge and need lots of scientists and engineers to work on a vast range of topics to solve them. Many problems in society are too complex to be solved by one science alone, so the really big questions, like sustainable energy, climate change and healthcare are things that need many different scientists and engineers to work together – bringing their different research topics together – to solve.

What made you want to study what you're studying now?
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Like many things in life there was alot of luck involved. Although I have always been fascinated by robots I didn’t actively want to study them until I came to UWE 20 years ago. I was lucky then because firstly I had a chance to set up a new research group, and secondly I met 2 other people who were also interested in robots. Together we started the robotics lab. We were also lucky because we managed to win the money (grants) to do robot research projects – without the funding the lab would have been very short lived.

Then, during the last 20 years my interest in robotics has changed, so that now I’m much more interested in basic scientific questions, like what is intelligence, how do animals evolve, how does culture emerge and so on, and use robots to try and answer (in a small way) those questions. So what makes me want to study robots now is a deep interest in some of the big questions of life.

What's the best thing about working with robots?
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I think there are two best things about working with robots. The first is that working with robots means working with lots of other scientists in other fields. So I get to work with ant biologists, animal ethologists, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, social scientists – and philosophers. I can’t tell you how fantastic this is – it means that I work with all sorts of people that engineers wouldn’t normally work with. And this has opened my eyes to all sorts of new scientific questions – and given me a completely new perspective on robotics.

The second best thing (which sort of follows on from the first), is that working with robots has made me really appreciate the astonishing power of evolution. The designs that evolution has come up with are remarkable and way way beyond anything that we can build. A famous scientist once called robots “An Imitation of Life”. While I think that’s true, the best imitations of life that we can come up with so far are very very simple and very crude compared with the real thing.