Computing

Clive Cookson

The exhibition hall here at the European Future Technologies Conference in Prague is awhirr with robots.

A robotic lamprey from Italy swishes elegantly around a small pool while a salamander walks around outside the water. A few metres away a humanoid baby called Now, created by a Slovenian-German collaboration, is taking its first steps – falling from time to time but gradually learning from experience how to keep its balance.

And displaying Gallic sophistication, French robots are demonstrating tasks that will be needed if machines are ever to serve as intelligent home companions – and servants – for people. One serves a drink while another, topped with a chef’s hat, prepares the ingredients for a ham and cheese omelette.

All these are experimental robots, requiring intense care and attention from their human creators to keep going. Their successors, which will need to be far more robust and durable, will not be ready for commercial application for 10 to 20 years.

Research into intelligent robots, with some of the mental flexibility and learning ability of natural organisms and even people, seems be undergoing something of a renaissance. The field is beginning to recover from a period when it suffered from public disillusion – and therefore poor funding – in the wake of excessive claims for robotic intelligence during the 1980s.

The EC Future and Emerging Technologies Programme, with a budget of €100m a year and rising fast, is a prime source of new money for European robotic researchers. They still lag well behind the Japanese in hardware and “mechatronics” – the mechanical and electronic engineering of robots – but may be ahead when it comes to the software for artificial intelligence.

Japan has a long-standing cultural affection for humanoid robots, symbolised by the 1960s television series Astro Boy that inspired many Japanese robotic researchers now in middle age to work in the field.

The western world, in contrast, has a deep suspicion of robots, dating back to Karel Čapek’s science fiction play Rossumovi univerzální roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots) premiered in Prague in 1921. R.U.R – a great success in translation between the wars – introduced robots to the world. It is not a happy story: the robots rise up against their human creators and kill them all.

Europe is showing signs at last of overcoming this historical legacy and learning to love the prospect of intelligent robots.

Clive Cookson

In Prague for the first European Future Technologies Conference. I’m chairing the opening session and a panel discussion about “multidisciplinary transformative research”. 

The conference and associated exhibition are the first to showcase the achievements of Europe’s 20-year-old Future and Emerging Technologies programme. They include mind-reading computers and friendly companion robots.

I must admit I hadn’t heard of FET (oh dear, another Euro-acronym to learn) but it looks as though it has achieved a reasonable return from its €100m a year budget, which is set to double over the next six years. I’ll write more about some of these achievements later in the week after I’ve been round the exhibition.

Henry Markram, who heads Switzerland’s Blue Brain project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, gave a powerful opening keynote address. If all researchers communicated as well as Henry, we’d have no trouble enthusing young people about science and technology.

Blue Brain is the world’s most advanced attempt to “reverse-engineer” the brain by simulating all its functions on supercomputers. Henry demonstrated an amazing simulation of neurons at work in a rat’s brain and told us a full simulation of the human brain would be possible within 10 years. Among many other things, this could help scientists to understand psychiatric conditions that remain medical mysteries.

Then came the dignitaries’ official opening ceremony. The pair advertised in the conference programme – the Czech prime minister and European information commissioner – were otherwise engaged, though Commissioner Viviane Reding did make a video presentation. So their stand-ins, Czech education minister Ondřej Liška and EC chef de cabinet Rudolf Strohmeier, cut the ribbons (literally, with scissors). Why a future-oriented conference needed such a traditional opening is rather a mystery; sadly my suggestion of a ribbon-cutting robot came too late.

Then my panellists made several interesting points about multidisciplinary research. One was that scientists become more interesting in working outside their original discipline as they grow older – age and status provide a security blanket for adventures that younger researchers feel they can’t risk.

Security fears can promote interdisciplinary thinking in a quite different way, observed Ivan Havel, director of the Centre for Theoretical Study at the Charles University’s Institute for Advanced Studies – and brother of former Czech president Václav Havel. During the Communist era, when dissident scientists from different disciplines were forced to meet in secret, their discussions were so fruitful that they have been maintained ever since.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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