Rescue robots on show in London

Technology of the 21st century finds practical applications, according to Israeli and British scientists

By Jessica Elgot, October 21, 2010
Dr Alon Wolf with one of his medical snake projects

Dr Alon Wolf with one of his medical snake projects

Would you let miniature robots run through your bloodstream? Could a robot take care of your grandmother? Should robot warriors with guns be let loose on the battlefields?

It might sound like science fiction, but these are new developments we might see in our lifetime, according to two academics at Monday's British Technion Society lecture, Dr Alon Wolf and Professor Alan Winfield.

For Israeli roboticist Dr Wolf, head of biorobotics at the Technion, Haifa, nature is one of the biggest inspirations for robotics. "We make robots inspired by the movements of snakes, worms and owls. We can send in snake robots into collapsed buildings and see if it's safe for rescuers to go in. In 9/11 and the Oklahoma bombings, a lot of rescuers died. We want to stop that. But it wouldn't have worked in the Chilean mine - it was too deep underground for the technology."

Insects are the inspiration behind swarm robotics, the field of Professor Alan Winfield of the University of the West of England Bristol Robotics Lab, which works with the Technion.

"Swarm robots act like termites, hundreds of tiny creatures doing a job that one couldn't do alone. They work together to overcome problems. The robots could do gardening, recycling, building work or explore the solar system. But we are still very much in the research stages."

Advances in robotics are often
a response to international crises, Professor Winfield said. "Wouldn't it be amazing if robots could have cleaned up the Gulf Oil spill?"

Dr Wolf also researches medical robotics. "We want to be able to do more surgery without cutting people open. We have a snake robot which can do heart surgery, it has a small entry hole, so you don't have to open up the chest of the patient. And the patient can go straight home afterwards.

"We are working on building microscopic robots, which could go
into your bloodstream and break up blood clots. It's like the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage."

There's one thing that both roboticists are certain about - we are going to be spending a lot more time with robots. Professor Winfield explained: "We will see robots in our homes and offices. There are some psychological boundaries though - people are happy to have a robot maid, but I wouldn't be too keen on having a robot nanny."

Dr Wolf added: "This is happening
a lot in Japan. They have an ageing population, so they are developing robots to help older people. And they have robotic dogs, which act like real dogs, but don't need walking."

Robot ethics is a major concern for both men, especially when it comes to using them as weapons. Dr Winfield said: "We can't invent ethical robots, or at least, we won't be able to for another 500 years. But we can have ethical roboticists.

"I think using robots in warfare is
a terrifying prospect. Robots are really, really stupid. The most intelligent one we have created probably has the same intelligence as a lobster. Would you trust one to have a gun? I think we may well see robot limitation treaties."

And the inevitable question - will robots take over the world? Dr Winfield doesn't think so - yet. "It's always possible. But we would have to programme them to be able to do that. And why would someone do that?"

Last updated: 5:25pm, November 3 2010