Robots: The good, the bad and the ugly

Do they help or do they hinder, and where are the worlds of robotics and artificial intelligence headed?

Industry and academia are working tirelessly to make robots more useful. That's not to say they're not useful now, it's just a case of making them even more advanced.

"At Oxford University our researchers are working on cutting edge robotics and AI technologies that can save or improve people's lives; everything from robots that can search disaster areas for survivors to computer visions systems that can help people with disabilities interact with information technology more easily," said Pete Wilton who looks after the university's science blog.

"Oxford is making a major contribution to solving some of the toughest problems in robotics: my impression is that to solve these problems our top scientists, engineers and mathematicians will need to work ever-more closely together."

Oxford's boffins are working on a few gems of note at present. There's the computer that learns signs while people sleep and software to bridge any robotic mental gaps and avoid confusion.

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What next?

So, while the idea of killer robots remains the subject of much debate, there is no doubt the world will benefit from more advanced tech-built helpers with killer skills.

Exciting as the possibilities are, the reality we end up with is still likely to be some way off Hollywood's alternate version of events.

"I love sci-fi and always go to see movies like terminator and my favourite author is Philip K. Dick but Sci-Fi distorts the public perceptions of AI and Robotics," added Sharkey.

"I cannot see a point at which robots will suddenly become sentient or conscious nor can I see a point at which they would take over the planet certainly not inorganic robots anyway. They have no motivation or desires and so why would they do that. There is a lot of debate about this and like any scientist I cannot be certain. In 30-odd years working in the subject I have not seen great advances in intelligence' although I have witnessed a most extraordinary revolution in the engineering of AI systems in the 1970s who would have thought that a computer programme would be the world chess champion? What an achievement."

Flying cars will have to stay the stuff of celluloid dreams for now then. But we can make our grounded DeLoreans do something equally cool in the future, according to Sharkey.

"One of the most exciting prospects for me is the automated car. We already have fully functioning autonomous cars running on AI from the DARPA challenges. But there are still a lot of legal and insurance problems to be solved. Also the current traffic systems will need to be modified to accommodate them," he said.

He concluded: "I have little doubt that our roads will be entirely populated by them one day they will greatly enhance safety on freeways and they will be able to be taken over by AI traffic systems to prevent traffic jams. I am too cautious to give a date."

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