UK plays catch-up with artificial intelligence and robotics
Guy Henderson in Edinburgh
An impressive array of robots serves as a fitting backdrop for Stewart Miller, the CEO of the new National Robotarium, in a large and mostly empty space in a swish new building on the campus of Heriot-Watt University on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
Launched in September in partnership with Edinburgh University, the center aims to bolster the UK's artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics sector, which Miller believes is lagging behind the major players.
"We're rich in research in AI," he explains, "but where we tend to stumble – not just with AI, but with other technology as well – is when we try to take it out of the research setting and apply it. That's why we've been set up."
In the weeks and months ahead this large, sparse space will fill up as it welcomes various tenant start-up AI and robotics firms and takes them under its wing.
True to the center's stated aim of providing "innovative solutions to global problems," one of the early arrivals has developed a device that moves through silos of grain, or indeed any bulk solids and powders, to monitor temperature and moisture.
As Crover's co-founder and CEO Lorenzo Conti explains, crop loss through poor storage is a global problem that he says in some cases can lead to 80 percent wastage. Crover's product goes to market early next year, at a time of acute concern over global grain supplies due to the war in Ukraine.
Sensors and sensibilities
At the other end of the hall, the Robotarium's engineering team directs a SPOT robot made by Boston Dynamics, which moves on four legs somewhat like a large dog. The product itself is "off the shelf," says engineer Sean Katagiri.
"What we're developing is the sensor system on top of it. That is allowing us to do a full mapping of the environment which allows us to do more fully autonomous navigation for example."
Again, the focus here is industrial usage, for example on construction sites or oil rigs – "Any environments where we're trying to keep humans out of harm's way," explains Katagiri.
Researchers here are building the use of AI and robotics at work and at home. Martin Ross is working with another relatively commonly-used robot, to develop an intelligent physiotherapy program to support long-term recovery from home after a stroke.
"After we've done a few sessions, it will remember what we've done, and it'll be able to say 'We didn't do very well on this last time, so let's work on it again,'" Ross says. Again, that makes it vital to improve the technology of sensors, if not quite sensibilities.
They even employ a psychologist here. "What factors lead humans to trust robots?" asks Thusha Rajendra, a developmental psychologist from Heriot-Watt University, rhetorically. "Should we trust them? Should robots trust humans?" We have the technology, believes Rajendra. The next evolution, he says, is adapting and adopting it for mass use.