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.

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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.”


The iPal – a help or hindrance to child development?

The article below has been reblogged from Shadow Robot’s website with their permission.

Have you seen this article on The Guardian? The iPal robot launched at RoboBusiness in California last week and is causing quite a stir.

According to Avatarmind, the company that created the robot, the iPal is a 3ft tall companion robot for children aged 3-8 years old. It has a tablet on it’s chest which children can interact with; one of the best uses of the robot is as a teacher – the iPal will answer those tricky questions (for example ‘why do we hiccup?’), however if the robot doesn’t have an answer, it passes the question on to a human at Avatarmind who will respond with the answer, and therefore growing the iPal’s knowledge along the way.

FullSizeRender                                                                         ©Avatarmind

iPal also has the ability to monitor your child, allowing you to message or video chat with them. Speaking to the Guardian earlier in the year, Professor Noel Sharkey (Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Sheffield) said “robots are a great educational tool for children. It inspires them to learn about science and engineering, but there are significant dangers in having robots mind our children. They do not have the sensitivity or understanding needed for childcare.” and when Julia Carrie Wong of the Guardian pressed him about the iPal, his message was clear: “This is awful.”

However, Professor Tony Prescott of Sheffield Robotics, speaking at the London Innovation Summit 2016, said that robot companionship would be better for you than interacting with a screen. Our MD, Rich Walker, said that socially anxious children could even go on adventures with their companion robots.

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Hello Kitty – A tool for projection?

The iPal has large eyes but an empty face – a look made popular by Hello Kitty (whose creators purposely didn’t add a mouth so that the viewer could project their emotions onto her, this way Hello Kitty is always reflecting our mood). The iPal seems to be a high-tech version of ‘My Size Barbie’ (a 3ft tall doll); it is perhaps an almost natural progression to pop a screen on a toy like that and bring it to life. But what do you think? Would you prefer your child to play with an iPal or an iPad?

Tweet us your thoughts at @shadowrobot or @chironproject or feel free to comment below.

UK Robotics Mission

The article below has been reblogged from Shadow Robot’s website with their permission.

Rich Walker from Shadow Robot recently spent a week out in Taiwan as part of the UK Robotics Mission organised by the British Office. It was a really valuable trip, with Rich meeting Taiwanese companies and roboticists, as well as getting the chance to address them at the TAIROS Industrial 4.0 International Forum. Here’s what Rich had to say about the trip:

“The Foreign Office likes to keep UK business abreast of what’s going on in the rest of the world, and as part of this they maintain a global Science and Innovation Network (SIN) operating out of embassies and consulates all over the world. The Taiwan local team realised that there were lots of activities taking place in robotics both in the UK and Taiwan, and decided to organise a trade mission focused on engagement between UK and Taiwanese robotics companies and researchers.


“The mission was led by the indomitable Prof. Guang-Zhong Yang from Imperial College’s Hamlyn Centre, an absolute coup for SIN as Prof. Yang is known and respected world-wide. Three British company representatives, from Shadow Robot, Rolls Royce and Aylesbury Automation, accompanied him in a packed week of meetings, talks and workshops.

“For me, it was the first time I had been to Taiwan, and I didn’t know quite how much I was going to enjoy it! The local organisation on the ground was excellent – many compliments to the British Office staff out in Taipei, and the Resident, Damion Potter. We had the support of ITRI, the major Taiwanese research institute, who helped us gain access to a range of companies and organisations from Foxconn and Acer through to specialised technology companies working in our own fields.

“The people were fabulous, the food was excellent, the weather was good, and many fruitful meetings were held. Shadow are starting several collaborations as a result of the trip, and I look forward to being back in Taiwan very soon!”