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By Kat Dibbits on

Six things we learned at BBC Tomorrow’s World Live

From robot poop to AI in hospitals, Tomorrow’s World Live at Manchester Science Festival covered all the big questions. Here's the most important stuff we learned.

You might have a robot in your kitchen

Dr Simon Watson from the University of Manchester, who uses robots to go into sites like Fukushima after the nuclear disaster, said a robot is “a physical device that has some level of intelligence”, such as being able to act on its own using sensors. If it were simply controlled by a human it would be remote control vehicle, but having sensors that allow it to not fall off the table or judge the number of dirty dishes in a load makes it a robot—so a dishwasher could be considered a robot.

Dr Sabine Hauert from the University of Bristol uses thousands of tiny robots to study swarming and says a robot is something that can sense its environment, has a physical presence in its environment and, most importantly, can link those two things—sense what is happening in its environment and then act on it.

Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

You can make your pet robot happy

Professor Tony Prescott of Cognitive Robotics at the University of Sheffield and Director of Sheffield Robotics created the adorable Miro Robots that made a special guest appearance. Miro Robots are designed based on an understanding of the mammalian brain, and can be used as companion animals. “You do form an attachment and you do end up talking to it,” said about travelling with his robot. He said after a while they do seem to have their own personalities—but perhaps that’s because we automatically project our own personalities onto robots. The robots have a very simplified brain with an “emotional” system—stroking it behind its ears makes it happy, punching it on the nose makes it angry.

Scratch your Miro behind the ears and it will react happily. Awwww.Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

We could see robots competing at the Olympics

Last year after the Rio games there was the world’s first Cyborg Olympcs that took place in Switzerland. Professor Andy Miah of the Manchester Science Festival’s lead educational sponsors the University of Salford said that increasingly prosthetic devices are getting closer to robotics.  He said: “I think we’ll see more robot sports, maybe even the Olympics will bring robots and sports together. Historically robots have been separate to us, they’re getting much closer to our bodies I think.”

Left to right: Dr Sabine Hauert, Dr Simon Watson, Prof Andy Miah.
Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

If you want to stop a robot stealing your job—learn to build robots

We’re not at the stage of robots building and programming robots, so robot building and engineering is the most future-proof career says Dr Simon Watson. Having the intelligence to actually design a robot is a human job.

We won’t be having a chat with a robot over a cup of tea any time soon

Dr Louise Dennis of the University of Liverpool says we’re quite a way away from having meaningful conversations with robots. She said: “We have systems that can answer questions on very specific topics—but it’s not like when you sit with your friends and chat and you don’t know where the topics are going. We’re not close to anything that could have that level of flexibility.”

Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Robots can feel empathy—perhaps

Dr Louise Dennis says we might be able to have robots that can mimic empathy—asking useful questions to draw out what we’re feeling and say sympathetic things to us. But does that mean the robot itself is having empathy? Or is it just acting in a way that is helpful for us to process our emotions. It’s a very philosophical question.

However Prof Andy Miah think we can call that empathy—he said if a person explains to a robot what they care about and that enters the database, then a situation arises where the robot adjusts their behaviour based on that database, is that mechanistic or empathetic? He thinks the latter. He said: “If we have a greater understanding of each other that is reduceable to an algorithm—but that doesn’t take the wonder out of life.”

Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

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