Robots vs Humanity


Should robots have faces? Can you fall in love with a robot? Will robots rule the future? These are some of the questions that were approached at last Thursday 1st December at ‘Robots vs Humanity’, an event organised by the CHIRON project.

The sold out event, held at Google Campus in London, saw people from many industries come together to think about and debate some of the biggest issues facing our society and future. Rich Walker, MD of Shadow Robot chaired the panel, which saw the speakers weigh in on questions tweeted in by the audience throughout the six talks.

R vs Humanity photo.jpg
The panel debates some of the questions tweeted in by the audience

Among the speakers were Patrick Levy Rosenthal, CEO of Emoshape who introduced his innovative new hardware – an emotion chip (Emotion Processing Unit) which enables emotional response from robots and AI. The EPU enables machines to respond to stimuli in line with the eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. Controversy followed not long after with Kathleen Richardson, Director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots who spoke about society and her opposition to sex robots.

Also speaking at the event were psychologists and psychiatrists, Dr Tom Pennybacker & Dr Elena Tourani of the Chelsea Psychology Clinic and Richard Graham of the Tavistock and Portman, who weighed in on issues surrounding attachment, child development and love. Meanwhile, engineers, Dr Praminda Caleb Solly, Associate Professor at UWE Bristol and Professor Guang-Zhong Yang, Co-Founder of the Hamlyn Centre, explored exciting developments in the robotics world and spoke about some of their ground-breaking research to date.

Praminda, who recently won STEM woman of the year at the RWOTY awards 2016, spoke about assistive technology and care robots. She was keen to put across the idea that robots were not being made to replace carers, merely to assist them. She said:

“The work in the BRL involves understanding how people and robots can interact intuitively, safely and effectively; designing and testing robots that will be acceptable and enjoyable to use, and ensuring that the technology is developed being mindful of ethical and cultural issues.”


Praminda Caleb-Solly (left) won STEM Woman of the Year 2016

“Assistive technologies, such as smart home environments, integrated sensors and assistive robotics, are recognised as important tools in helping older people improve their quality of life and live independently for longer. Current research is looking into a range of different ways in which robots might be used, such as assisting older adults with age related disabilities and long term conditions, and their carers, in daily tasks, to enable independent living and active ageing.”

However, not everyone was as positive about these advances in technology as Dr Caleb-Solly. Kathleen Richardson who is also author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines said: “I am extremely worried about the impact on human relationships, as the idea that humans are optional – that you can have all your needs met by a machine – is not true.”


Kathleen Richardson, Director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots

“In my previous research on autism I looked at how human beings make attachments and what happens if they don’t make attachments with other human beings.”

“Machines are very good at doing work and going to places that we cannot go to, like outer space, so they definitely have a role to play, but they cannot do what people do – they cannot do intimacy. It is not possible but we are increasingly being told it is,” she added.

Sinéad Nolan, Research and Communications Office for the CHIRON project who organised the event explained why she wanted people to have this debate.

“I think people should be discussing these issues. We are on the edge of one of the biggest changes in society. Technology is moving forward and people are wondering where it is going – where will we be in 30 years’ time? What will that change mean for us, and what will it mean for our society and our happiness?

“Although I agree that ‘Robots vs Humanity’ does sound a bit like a battle, we hoped the outcome for the event would be overall one of positivity and it definitely was. The feedback from the event has been excellent, with people saying it was one of the best events of its kind that they have ever attended.

“While we initially invited people to think of it a black and white issue, I think people left with a much more well-rounded view of how assistive technology and robots can help further our society in the future.”


STEM Woman of the Year

Dr Praminda Caleb-Solly (left) STEM Woman of the Year at RWOTY Awards

By Sinéad Nolan

This week the CHIRON team were delighted to congratulate one of our project leads, Dr Praminda Caleb-Solly, on winning the Red Woman of the Year Award 2016 for STEM.

Selected from five shortlisted nominees to be named the most inspirational woman in STEM in 2016, Praminda’s success will hopefully spread ripples further afield than her department at Bristol laboratory where she is an Associate Professor, to the wider society where women still only account for a shocking 12.8% of the entire STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce.

The majority of Praminda’s work focuses on developing technological solutions for people living with disabilities or long-term health conditions. She played an influential part in developing SAM (Self-help for Anxiety Management), an app to help people to understand their anxiety, monitor anxious thoughts and follow self-help exercises. SAM has had over half a million downloads to date. Praminda also works for Designability in Bristol as their head of electronics and computer systems. She said of the award:

“I feel very honoured indeed for the recognition. While we still do not have enough women working in STEM, there are a number of amazing women achieving so much and to be selected feels very special indeed. It inspires me even more to ensure that I do my very best to get more women and girls involved in exploring the opportunities offered by working in STEM related areas. One of the biggest challenge is overcoming the misconceptions that STEM subjects are hard or boring – we need to do more to show the creativity in STEM and the myriad of exciting application areas.”

She added: “Engineering today requires good communication and listening skills in addition to technical understanding and expertise. There is so much useless, difficult to use and unattractive technology out there, which frankly is a disgrace. We know that taking a participatory approach to design and applying user-centred methods for design and development can make all the difference (…) however with more women coming in, bring with them different perspectives and agendas is helping to break the barriers to let in new ways of approaching the challenges that our society faces.”

Now in their eighth year, the Red awards bring together people from a broad range of professions and walks of life, from scientists and creatives, to fashion insiders and charity pioneers, who are all celebrated for being ground breakers and trail blazers in their own right. The event was attended by women from many sectors – with their host for the night TV and radio presenter, Fearne Cotton, and speakers and attendees including Samantha Cameron and Millie Mackintosh.

Samantha Cameron (left) and Fearne Cotton (right)

“The highlight for me was being surrounded by so much energy and passion,” says Praminda of the evening. “I was in awe of all the other women there receiving awards – and a new found admiration for what can be achieved with determination and passion. I would encourage everyone to read about all the nominees. I was most moved by listening to Claire Throssall’s acceptance speech and her courage to reach deep into herself and achieve what she has.”

Of her work, judge Cathy Newman (a judge on the Red awards) said: “Praminda is a star in the male-dominated STEM firmament, but as well as fulfilling her potential, her tech wizardry has helped disabled people lead more fulfilling lives, too. Her app is practical and ingenious.”

But despite all the praise, Praminda was able to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground and reflect after the glow of the event, upon the dual role women play in society and how we still have a long way to go.

“My hopes for the future of women in science is where we won’t actually have to discuss this at all. We would all be equal, respected for what we do, rather than our gender or background determining how we are perceived and pigeonholed.”

“We need a range of different channels to reach out to people and showcase the ability and achievements of women that can often get lost. There was an interesting BBC article last year which was sad to read – The Women Whom Science Forgot. There is still so much sexism in our society where women are judged by their looks rather than their ability and it is vital to make sure that ability and achievement are what inspire and inform our younger generations.

“Acknowledging this is a great way to reinforce what is important, what really matters. There are still a number of places where women don’t get the same opportunities and privileges to help them achieve their full potential as men do. We need to do everything we can to change this.”