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What does the future hold for robotics?

Professor Colin Williams and Principal Teaching Fellow Kath Garnett, Cyber Security Centre, WMG

Published May 2015

How much of our future will be built around computers and robotics? What can we learn from mechanical beings? What does the past and future of computing look like? We spoke to Professor Colin Williams and Principal Teaching Fellow Kath Garnett to learn about robots, the future of cyber-human relationships and the 'Frankenstein complex'.
Colin WilliamsWhat is happening in the field of robotics research?

What isn’t happening! We’re at the point where anything is possible. We can help injured women and men walk again. We can print replacement body parts at the level of individual cells and we can print food. The technology we see today will only get better. If you look back over the human story, there are a number of instances when we have completely changed our condition, for example, with the invention of the wheel, agriculture, writing, engines and so forth. We’re on the cusp of another huge technological development, and it’s important that we’re prepared for these changes.

What are you researching at Warwick?

At the Cyber Security Centre we are concerned with relationships between humans and these things we call computers and robots, and the cultural theory surrounding these relationships.

How far has the relationship between humans and machines come?

Back in the middle of the 20th century, an American mathematician Norbert Wiener coined the term ‘cyber’ to describe complex systems in which ‘meat and the machine’ would operate together, a time when we could have machines that think, that change their state and reproduce themselves - revolutionary stuff back in the 50s and 60s, but recognisable now. At this time J.C.R Licklider envisaged computers being used to store the vast repository of the totality of human knowledge – and today we have vast libraries online. So we have come a long way, but many of these concepts existed at the beginning of the last century. At the same time, our popular culture has been infused with Isaac Asimov’s concept of the ‘Frankenstein complex’, a fear of our own advanced technology as seen in films such as the Terminator series, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Battlestar Galactica.

How important is wider understanding of cyber systems?

Our technology will only continue to advance, so it’s important that we become aware of the cyber-debate. Will robots and humans fight on the same battlespaces in the future? When we can 3D-print robots, how long before these robots can print replicas of themselves? How long will it be before cybernetic enhancement of both body and mind becomes desirable and a matter of wealth and status? Honda is keen to build robots for every house in Japan - what will this mean for privacy and security? All these questions have a psychological, ethical and philosophical dimension, which we think everyone should be pondering.

Might robots ever be advanced or intelligent enough that they can pass for human?

Alan Turing’s famous Imitation Game, or ‘Turing Test’ was developed in relation to that very question. When a computer engages in discourse with a human and the human can’t tell the difference, is that the point at which artificial intelligence is no longer ‘artificial’? Turing had to design a test which got round the fact that in the 1950s, a computer would be sitting in the corner of the room as an inert box, but he predicted that sooner, rather than later, computers may look human. If you can’t tell the difference, then in what sense isn’t a robot sentient, sapient and intelligent? Yet another ethical conundrum to be debated! Colossus: The Forbin Project is a classic 70s film which asks what happens when supercomputers decide to be more than they were intended to be. You'll be able to recognise that 'Frankenstein complex' at work in this film!

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