November 19th, 2010

Robots: Dependable Swarms

In today’s episode we take a close look at swarm robotics and its potential use in real-world applications with expert Alan Winfield, co-founder of the Bristol Robotics Lab in the UK.

Alan Winfield
Alan Winfield is professor at the University of Bristol where he conducts research at the Bristol Robotics Lab. As a pioneer in the field of Swarm Robotics, he’s been looking at how large numbers of simple robots with local information can self-organize to achieve seemingly complex tasks. In such systems, inspired from social insects such as ants and termites, the intelligence of the group emerges from the actions of the individual robots.

Beyond simply showing that swarm systems can work in the lab, Winfield has been considering ways to make swarming a reality in applications. The main challenge is that it is typically difficult to prove that swarm systems will work, which is something desirable for real-world tasks. Furthermore, increasing the number of robots in the system also increases the probability of robot failures that might be disruptive to the swarm’s purpose. To overcome these challenges, he created a new field of research called “Swarm Engineering”.

Winfield is also a follower of the Open Science movement, meaning that he often publishes data, source code and project updates as science progresses. In his effort for transparency, Winfield is also Senior Media Fellow for the EPSRC which has gotten him blogging and tweeting about robotics.

Finally, we also discuss ethics with a focus on robots that make us believe they have feelings and the emphasis on ethical roboticists rather than ethical robots.


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  • torkel

    He’s way wrong in the argument about emotional dependence. What planet is he from?!

    There are people who are emotionally dependent in just the way he describes as "HORRIBLE!" to, for example the following things:
    * tv
    * farmville
    * pornography
    * books (escapism to fantasy world)
    * food (eating to reduce angst)
    * drugs

    - what exactly is so horrible if we add robots to this list? might it not be that a physical robot is a much better thing to be emotionally reliant on than some of the drugs on the list above?

    A robot may serve as a social instrument, satisfying the need for company to the lonely. It may also serve as a socialising instrument in that the company of robots may train humans and ease them to also have company of other humans.