Robot Wars - The history of Robots and Robots at War

Once a judge on Robot Wars, Professor Noel Sharkey told us about the part robots have to play in real wars...
23 September 2007

Interview with 

Professor Noel Sharkey, Sheffield University


Noel Sharkey is professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at Sheffield University, He's been studying robot for years so who better to ask about how close we are now to seeing the robots of the movies...

Chris -   I don't actually know why we call robots, 'robots', where do we get that word from?

Noel -   You've asked the right person here.  It comes from a play in 1921 by Karl Chapek who was a Czechoslovakian playwrite.  The play wasn't great, it was called 'Rossum's Universal Robots', but it debuted all over the world, Tokyo, London, New York, and caused an absolute sensation because it was the beginning of this idea that robots will take over the world and kill everybody.  The play ends with all the humans being killed, just one being kept, actually, who was the scientist who could make new ones.  But then, one of the robots - they were biochemical, by the way, more like what we call androids, very like humans - and the play ends with the two lead robots, male and female, with the female getting pregnant, and they walk off into the sunset holding hands.

Chris -   So why did they decide on the term 'robot'?

Noel -   Sorry, the word robot itself it's the Czechoslovakian word, I believe, robota, meaning 'forced labour'.

Chris -   That's quite true, isn't it, because that's pretty much how we exploit robots.

Noel -   Yes, that's what it was at the time yeah, but they're very different from what we think of a robot now, really. It wasn't the first big tin robot, or anything.

Chris -   Now most people are acquainted with the fact that we've got robots in car factories spraying cars, and then spraying naughty pictures on them and spraying over that again as the adverts will have you think, but where else in an exciting context do we find robots today?

Noel -   Well we find them all over the place, I'm not sure about exciting contexts, but certainly another one you see in adverts is the Asimo robot, Honda's Asimo robot.  You might have seen that, it looks like a little spaceman, a small child.  You see it wondering about, going up stairs and meeting with a big spaceman at the Washington museum of science.  That robot was very clever because it took them something like $18 million to construct it over a period from the 1980's because we didn't have walking robots.  It's a fully formed android, and I've done quite a bit of work with it myself ans walked with it and it is really convincing, it walks like a human.

Chris -   Well why is it so difficult to make it walk though, Noel?

Noel -   Balance, centre of gravity.  And one of the things about Asimo is it's got a backpack where it's computing is, and it's got something called a zero-moment algorithm, which was discovered by an Eastern European which is very important, but where they put all the money was actually on the speed of transmission from the sensors.  You can think of them like tilt sensors on a pinball table.  So you've got tilt sensors, and they send information to the backpack, the computer.  It sends information to the motors and gets them to adjust themselves to get the centre of gravity right.  It does this fifty thousand times a second, that's the real magic, it has to be really fast to keep it up.

Chris -   So is it, when making robots, is it just a case of trying to copy what humans do or are we trying to be a bit more advanced?

Noel -   Well with the walking, we're not quite as good as humans; when I say it walks like a human, if you see it, and actually work with it, it walks like a human who's dying for the loo, it's got that kind of lavatory walk in a hurry to the toilet!  So it's kind of an odd walk.  We've always been trying to make robots better than humans because we want them to do things that we can't do, obviously like heavy lifting and stuff like that; but in the main you find robots now, not a lot in Britain, we're actually the worst in, well maybe the best in Europe, as we have less robots than anywhere else in the workplace.  In Japan, for instance, there's a vast number of robots doing floor cleaning, pool cleaning, window cleaning, all kinds of cleaning.  I have a robot vacuum cleaner myself...

Chris -   How does that work?

Noel -   Well, you just put it on the floor!  The big hold up for robot vacuum cleaners since the 1950s was that they couldn't do stairs.

Chris -   Like the Daleks!  But how do they know where the dirt is?

Noel -   Well they don't.  But they Gave up on the stair business because somebody have the good idea of saying "we'll leave the stair business for now, and we'll make them small so that people can carry them up the stairs".  Mine's like a frizbee, it's a 'Roomba' made by iRobot and what it does is has a lovely spiralling movement round the floor and if it meets an obstacle it avoids it and carries on with the spiral.  So sometimes it will cover the same ground again, twice.

Chris -   We had a pool cleaner once which had a penchant for cleaning one bit of the swimming pool but it kind of avoided the same bits every time.  It was a real pain because you then ended up having to waste loads of time getting the brush out just to clean that bit, so in fact it took almost as long to just do it, and clean the whole pool, than it did to get this blinking robot going. Hopefully they will improve that in the future.

Noel -   The roomba does a bit of that, it can get stuck in a corner, you have to keep your eye on it a little, it's not absolutely perfect.

Chris -   Now one of the things that you were involved with is robot wars, is that right?

Noel -   Yes, that's right, yes.

Chris -   One of the things that people have been talking about a lot is getting robots to perhaps go into battle on our behalf.

Noel -   Yes, that's correct, yes.

Chris -   So how would that work?

Noel -   It's not something people are talking about, there's already a lot of robots working in, well there are about 4000 in Iraq at the moment, and an awful lot in Afghanistan.  It's very difficult to track the numbers because the military aren't completely forthcoming.

Chris -   But what are these robots doing there?

Noel -   Mainly, they're doing useful work in bomb disposal, so what we call IED, which is Improvised Explosive Devices.  They drive them round and look for explosives, they have a camera on them, they're remote controlled mainly, and when they find one they use the robot to detonate them, or something like that.  There's some quite funny stories coming out because the soldiers are treating these like real beings, even though they're remote controlling them.  There's a droid hospital where the soldiers take their robots to have them fixed and soldiers what the same robot back, even though they're offered a new model of exactly the same robot.  And there are lots of stories of soldiers taking their robots fishing on their day off, they're sitting in the boat and they put the fishing rod in the robot's claw hand.  They come very attached to them.

Chris -   You'd be worried about it shorting out if it fell in, wouldn't you?

Noel -   That's true!  But I think they're more attached to them because when people are in danger they're more attracted to the thing they're in danger with.  Recently they've sent, but only 4 so far, these bomb disposal robots made by foster-miller called the Talon Sword, that are armed with M24 and M249 machine guns, 50 calibre rifles, grenade launchers, anti-tank rocket launchers and these are still remote controlled.  I've seen these and they're deadly, it looks like a small robot wars robot on tracks, but then you see the machine guns and things on top.  Also, the army really like them, they're very useful for killing people without actually confronting them.

Chris -   Presumably they don't draw a salary, which is quite beneficial.

Noel -   They don't draw a salary but they cost quite a lot.  Though they're not that expensive, about $15,000 which is about £8000, so you can't just throw them away.  They've sent 4 in and there are 80 more on order.  Everybody wants one, so they're talking about very significant numbers of them.  A new company has just been given an order for 3000 more to go into Iraq, a company called FX Robots.  The usual company that does it is iRobots with Rodney Brookes, that's the company who make my vacuum cleaner. 

An interesting story about the new robot, because they guy who made it was an employee of iRobot, he left and now he's just got a $180 million contract from the military.  IRobot detectives have witnessed him putting stuff into dumpsters and cleaning hard drives, so he's being prosecuted now for stealing their ideas.  There's a lot of money at stake.  That's the big thing, there are a lot of companies involved here.

And of course we've got the killer robots in the sky, now people may not think of them as robots, like the cruise missile or pilotless aircraft, which have been around in America since about 1918.  

The Predator robot will do almost anything autonomously, it found a second in command of Osama Bin Laden and what it did was very clever - I dont like this stuff at all, by the way, if I sound like an evil genius or something I'm not, I dont like this - but what it did was it found him in a car, switched on his mobile phone using satellite technology and as soon as the phone came on the operator, who was 7000 miles away in the Nevada desert, pressed a button and it vapourised the car with two hellfire missiles.


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