Robots

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.

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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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