Author Archives: gemma

The view from the audience at Beyond the Stars

Behind the scenes of “Beyond the Stars”

By James Bailey, Head of Marketing & Communications for NMSI.

Back in October 2011 renowned producer and composer, Craig Leon, approached us to partner on an audio visual project about space. His pedigree brought us great confidence in the project, he produced Blondie, discovered the Talking Heads and crossed over to classical with three number one albums with Izzy Cooper who was to star in this show.

Filming Beyond the Stars at the Science Museum

Our only proviso was that whilst we wouldn’t interfere with the artistic elements of the show we would insist on scientific accuracy. Enter Doug Millard, our Space curator who consulted on the script to ensure its veracity and also to add the latest understandings of our solar system.

Whilst our partners sourced footage from NASA including  imagery that had never been broadcast before we firmed up the commercial terms of the contract. Hannah Green, ‘our fixer’ then got to work as Project Manager to make sure that operationally we could deliver what we’d promised. This is no mean feat in a Museum the size of ours, things then get even more complicated when you add in a highly creative production team.

The ‘as live’ performance was on a Thursday night, but first the production had to move in, this was a very difficult logistical process given that we don’t allow any equipment to be moved through the Museum during opening hours. The first tranche of deliveries arrived on Monday night with plywood going down to protect the flooring from the heavy loads. The majority of equipment was in by 10am on the Tuesday morning, this included staging, TV cameras and trolleys, lighting, cabling, amps etc etc. Also, I shouldn’t forget, there was also a production team of 50.

Setting up Beyond the Stars at the Science Museum London


By Wednesday morning the lighting, video, audio and two of the biggest projectors in Europe had been fine tuned and were ready for the first rehearsal. The orchestra, ‘The Ricciotti Ensemble of Amsterdam’ were very flexible and responded to Craig’s direction with superb results. The dancing of Vanessa Fenton of the Royal Ballet brought a touch of Bond to this space odyssey.

The whole production team, including all the performers totalled 100, we then brought an extra 130 people into the mix as the audience. On the night these spectators had a huge part to play as the ‘live TV’ audience, their involvement was integral to the end result. In the final dress rehearsal I sat at the TV mixing desk where it dawned on me that no matter how good tonight was everything had been done for one thing and one thing only, making a TV programme. Everything was timed to absolute perfection, with second by second commands directing the various cameras to focus, pan and zoom onto different sections of the orchestra, crowds and stage.

Filming Beyond the Stars at the Science Museum London 

We brought the audience in, albeit 45 minutes late, this is ‘Live TV’ after all so not everything can go to plan. Avril introduced the night and reminded people that they were being filmed and if they were sat next to anybody they shouldn’t be then perhaps they should move. Nobody moved.

The performance went with no apparent hitches with only one unplanned re-take at the end and judging by the applause throughout everybody seemed to enjoy themselves.

 The view from the audience at Beyond the Stars

I left with the audience at 21.45 but Hannah and Jon Kaddish stayed on through the night to ensure that the get out was as smooth as possible. I met them the next day along with Avril and the Assistant Producer, Sam. All were dead on their feet but very happy that only twelve hours ago there was a fully working TV studio geared up for a major orchestral recording and broadcast where we stood and now it had gone with the exception of two large make up mirrors. As we left ‘Temporary Exhibition Space Two’ the next event moved in.

Notes: ‘Beyond the stars’, in partnership with the Science Museum, London and NASA will be broadcast on PBS in June 2012 with an accompanying DVD, CD and theatre tour across the US and Europe.


Screengrab of the Science Museum's new game Futurecade

Futurecade is here and wants you to play

By Micol Molinari  – Learning Resources Developer

What do robotic lobsters and genetically engineered bugs have in common?

They both star in Futurecade, our brand new suite of online games based on cutting-edge research.

Screengrab of the Science Museum's new game Futurecade

The games – Bacto-Lab, Robo-Lobster, Cloud Control and Space Junker - explore heavy-hitting science in a fun (read: addictive) way.

You won’t see science pop-ups explaining how things work, but you will be encouraged to consider your own opinion on the issues and hopefully you’ll be inspired to find out more. Because that’s the point, we want the games to generate interest and discussion around the science of today and tomorrow – and be so fun that you come back to them again and again!

If playing the games piques your interest in groundbreaking research, visit our Antenna gallery for up-to-the-minute news, exhibitions and live events around the science that’s shaping our lives.

Play Futurecade now!


Mark Champkin's with his gift for Stephen Hawking

A ‘black hole light’ as a birthday gift to Prof Hawking

By Mark Champkins

When I was asked to design Stephen Hawking a 70th Birthday present on behalf of the Museum, I have to confess, I was a little overwhelmed. I was chuffed to be asked, but didn’t really know where to start.

A ‘black hole light’ as a birthday gift to Prof Hawking

After giving it some thought I reckoned it would be worth talking to some people that knew him and his theories really well, so I approached the Museum curators, Boris and Ali, who have been responsible for putting together a display about his life and work.

They were amazingly helpful, explaining a little about his theories about Black Holes and his work to unite the field of quantum physics with the cosmological. They showed me some images of his office, and his most prized objects and awards, along with some models he had made of the way light falls into a black hole. They also directed me to one or two objects in the Museum that have relevance to his work, one of them being Geissler Tubes.

Geissler tubes are beautiful! Alison and Boris described to me how a fella called Geissler was experimenting with vacuums, and created Geissler tubes by pumping gasses into the vacuum tube, and passing a current through the gas. The gasses glowed as they emitted photons, and though they started out as a curiosity, they led to two developments that relate to Hawking’s work. Firstly, the tubes led to the development of the equipment used to discover the electron – the first sub-atomic particle, which in turn, arguably led to the field of Quantum Physics. Secondly, the Geissler tubes led to the creation of Crookes radiometer, which as it’s name implies detect radiation, linking with Hawking’s identification of his very own form of radiation, that which escapes from a black hole.

I then hit upon the idea of making a “Black Hole Light” using the closest thing available to a Geissler tube – neon tubes. I liked the pun, and how it alludes to Hawking Radiation.

The form I chose for the lamp was inspired by the profile of the model I had seen in Hawking’s lab, demonstrating how light is sucked into a black hole.

I rather liked the idea of uniting the technology that led to the birth of Quantum Physics (in the form of a Geissler-inspired neon tube), with a form that is representative of the path light would take spiralling into a black hole. Mixing Cosmology with Quantum Physics, and trying to reconcile them in one artefact. Something of a metaphor for Hawking’s work.

Having made the light, I am really pleased with it. I really hope it can also serve a practical purpose in his home or office, and that he’ll like it!

View the rest of the pictures in our Flickr set


Colorful telescopic view of spiral galaxy

Go Beyond the Stars at the Science Museum

If you were setting out on a journey to space what would your soundtrack be? For one night only on Thursday 26 January the Science Museum will be exploring just that.

 Colorful telescopic view of spiral galaxy

Credit & Copyright: Ken Crawford (Rancho Del Sol Observatory)

Beyond The Stars is a stunning audiovisual journey through space taking you from the first lunar landing to the outer reaches of space.

The show will include stunning Hubble Space telescope images and never before seen footage from NASA, all intertwined with incredible CGI images of space projected on to a large screen in the Museum!

The show will be set to iconic music performed in a large orchestral setting by renowned composer Craig Leon.

Expect to hear popular classical pieces from Richard Strauss’, modern day space songs (think along the lines of Elton John’s Rocket Man) and the iconic Thus Spake Zarathustra from 2001 A Space Oddessey.

[yframe url='']

We have 20 exclusive tickets to give away on Twitter for this one-time only screening. To be in with a chance make sure you are following us on Twitter where we will be running a range of space and music related competitions!

We are also creating a playlist of space songs on Spotify to get us in the mood for Thursday, share your space tracks with us in the comments below or on Twitter! #spacesongs


Professor Stephen Hawking

Leading contemporaries pay tribute to Stephen Hawking

By Roger Highfield

As part of the Science Museum’s celebration of Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday, leading contemporaries have paid tribute to his remarkable impact on the field of cosmology.

Hawking, director of research at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, has seen cosmology rise from a niche subject in the 1960s to being perhaps the most compelling of all the sciences – not least thanks to his own inspirational contribution.

Professor Stephen Hawking

One of Hawking’s overarching goals has been to take general relativity (Einstein’s law of gravity), which controls the large scale structure of the universe, and blend it with quantum theory, which rules the world of atoms, molecules and the very small, to produce a grand theory of everything, known as quantum gravity.

Hawking first caught the attention of his peers in the late 1960s, working with Roger Penrose on how general relativity sometimes breaks down, resulting in something called a singularity. They showed that such singularities must occur inside black holes – and, most probably, at the start of the universe. This idea implies that singularities mark the beginning and end of space and time, which was created during the Big Bang and breaks down within black holes.

In his most famous work, celebrated in a 70th birthday gift from the Museum, Hawking raised the intriguing possibility that black holes are not as black as once thought. The reason is down to one strange consequence of quantum theory: empty space isn’t empty at all: pairs of particles are constantly popping into and out of existence. If they appear on the border of event horizon – the point of no return from the gravity well of a black hole, as described by general relativity – they may find themselves on different sides, with one sucked in, and the other becoming part of “Hawking radiation”.

The same mathematics can also be applied to the ‘echo of the Big Bang’ which took place 13.7 billion years ago, the splash of residual microwaves that still warm today’s universe,  and to the way in which a soup of ultra-hot matter crystallised to form the visible universe.

In spring 1982, Hawking made a bold proposal: that fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation could be traced back to Hawking radiation, as the tiny seeds around which the large scale structure of the universe coalesced.

That summer, this “fluctuation theory” was developed at a workshop organised by Hawking and his colleague Gary Gibbons. Remarkably, their efforts – and those of two Russians who came up with the same result independently – predicted these fluctuations in the fabric of the cosmos a decade before a purpose-built satellite called COBE observed them in the heavens.

Leading figures remark:

“Hawking’s revolutionary discovery that black holes radiate was the first spectacular result in quantum gravity, suggesting a startling unification of space-time, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics that has set much of the agenda for fundamental physics in the past four decades. It is impossible to overstate how profound these ideas are, how influential they have been, and how they continue to drive our 21st century quest to more deeply understand the nature of space-time and quantum mechanics.”

Nima Arkani-Hamed, Institute for Advanced Study,Princeton, front rank theoretician

Stephen Hawkings’ discovery of black hole evaporation was a very special insight.  By now it influences work in many areas of physics –  heavy ion physics, quantum critical phenomena in condensed matter physics, cosmology, and of course the search for a fundamental understanding of quantum gravity, which was Stephen’s original motivation. After almost forty years that Stephen’s discovery has been a source of fresh thinking,  we still are far from really getting to the bottom of things.  So we still need Stephen’s insights! Happy Birthday, Stephen! There is a lot to celebrate and I wish I could be present for this occasion.

Edward Witten, Institute for Advanced Study,Princeton, string theory pioneer

“Stephen Hawking’s name will life in the annals of science because he has probably done as much as anyone else since Einstein to extend our grasp of gravity, space and time; millions have had their cosmic  horizons widened by his bestselling books; and even more, around the world, have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against  all the odds-a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination.  His “three score years and 10″ deserve all the accolades they are getting.”

Martin ReesUniversity ofCambridge,  Astronomer Royal

The most spectacular of Hawking’s discoveries was the emission of radiation from black holes. This caused a fundamental advance in our understanding of gravitation and thermodynamics. The Hawking equation, telling us that the entropy of a black hole is proportional to the area of its horizon, is as important as the Einstein equation telling us that the energy of an object is proportional to its mass.

Freeman Dyson, Institute for Advanced Study,  mathematical physicist and pioneer of quantum electrodynamics

 Stephen Hawking himself remarks:

“ It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the last 70 years, and I’m happy if I have made a small contribution.”

The below film features Stephen Hawking talking about the new display at the Science Museum alongside exclusive photos from his family archives and lifelong works.

[yframe url='']

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking pictures released

Stephen Hawking

Post written by Roger Highfield

The Science Museum has commissioned a series of photographic portraits of Professor Hawking to celebrate his 70th birthday at the end of this week.

He is best known for his work on time, black holes and the Big Bang. But in a New Scientist interview to celebrate his birthday, he admits he spent most of the day thinking about women. “They are,” he says “a complete mystery.”

In the background of this photograph, there’s Marilyn Monroe, whom Hawking describes as “an old girlfriend of mine.”

The birthday portraits were taken by Sarah Lee in Prof Hawking’s office at the University of Cambridge, where he directs research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology.

Another of Sarah’s images will adorn a new display at the museum, which he calls ‘one of my favourite places,” to celebrate his life and his achievements.

A few days ago, I myself found in his office in the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Mathematical Sciences, seven curving, stylish pavilions of brick, metal, steel and stone, along with Ian Blatchford and Heather Mayfield, Director and Deputy Director of the Science Museum  to thank Prof Hawking in person for his help.

Hawking has contributed to the new display at the museum, which opens on January 20, along with his daughter Lucy, with whom he has worked on science books aimed at children.

Curators Boris Jardine and Alison Boyle have selected objects and papers from his archives for this celebration of his life and science, along with audio of his synthetic voice.

Tributes to the world’s best-known scientist and author of the runaway bestseller, A Brief History of Time have poured in.

Hawking has had a research centre named after him at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and, earlier this week, eminent researchers expressed their respect for his life and achievements

The BBC Radio 4 has invited the public to ask Hawking questions and aired a series on the thoughts, concerns and humour of this icon of modern science

A scientific conference started today on the state of the universe which will culminate with a public symposium on his birthday, 8 January, when he will be joined by Astronomer Royal Lord (Martin) Rees, newly-minted Nobellist Prof Saul Perlmutter and Prof KipThorne, who gave the world wormholes and time travel.

A Supernova

Lunchtime Reading 2011

A Supernova

We always knew our followers were a curious lot but now we have the stats to back it up! We started sharing Lunchtime Reading links on Twitter and Facebook back in June, below is a roundup of the 10 most popular.

Our most clickable links range from 10 questions for Stephen Hawking, Darwin’s contribution to our visual culture and how search engines are changing our brains.

It makes a great reading list and hopefully there are some articles you haven’t seen already. Happy reading!


Let us know which was your favourite in the comments below, or on Twitter with the hashtag #lunchtimereading2011. All our Lunchtime Reading links are also saved on delicious.

Image of Alan Winfield

In Interview: Alan Winfield

Image of Alan Winfield

Professor Alan Winfield

Alan Winfield is Professor of Electronic Engineering and Director of the Science Communication Unit at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Alan will be on hand to discuss the cultural relevance and impact of swarm robotics at Robotville.

How did you become involved in robotic research?

Like many things in life there was a lot of luck involved. Although I have always been fascinated by robots I didn’t actively study them until I came to Bristol 20 years ago. I was lucky then because firstly I had a chance to set up a new research group, and secondly I met 2 other people who were also interested in robots. Together we started the robotics lab. We were also lucky because we managed to win the money (grants) to do robot research projects – without the funding the lab would have been very short lived.

Then, during the last 20 years my interest in robotics has changed, so that now I’m much more interested in basic scientific questions, like what is intelligence, how do animals evolve, how does culture emerge and so on, and use robots to try and answer (in a small way) those questions. So what makes me want to study robots now is a deep interest in some of the big questions of life.

What are swarm robots and what is it about them that fascinates you?

A robot swarm is a collection of relatively simple robots that interact with each other and the environment in ways that are inspired by the behaviour of social insects. Complex group behaviours, like flocking, foraging for food, or nest building can emerge from the micro-interactions of lots of individuals.

I’m fascinated by swarm robotics for two reasons. Firstly, future real-world applications for tasks as wide ranging as robotic agriculture, waste processing and recycling, search and rescue, or planetary exploration and colonisation are likely to use swarms of robots. And secondly, by building swarms of robots we can start to understand how the processes of emergence and self-organisation work, and how to engineer systems using these mechanisms.

Do you see a direct relationship between the swarm behaviour of robots and the herd like relationships of humans?

Yes, social insects (and the robots inspired by them) are not the only animals that show swarm intelligence. The flocking of birds, shoaling of fish and herding of mammals are all examples of the same kind of group behaviour. Humans are complicated, of course, but some aspects of human crowd behaviour are almost certainly swarm-like.

What are the ultimate goals and objectives attributed to swarm robotics?

The ultimate goal of swarm robotics is to be able to engineer safe and reliable robotic swarms for real-world applications. As I mentioned in the answer above there are many challenging real-world (and off-world) tasks that would benefit from a swarm robotics approach. Basically any task that is distributed in physical space, where it would be better to have multiple robots (than having just one robot).

Reaching this goal requires the solution of a number of difficult technical problems. One is how to design the behaviours of the individual robots so that when you put all the robots together in their working environment, they actually self-organise to complete the required task. The second challenge is how to design a human-swarm interface – in other words how would a human operator control and monitor a large swarm of robots. The third challenge is how to prove that the swarm of robots will always do the right thing, and never the wrong thing! And the final challenge is getting this all working in real-world applications so that people become confident in swarm robotics technology.

Our view of robots is shaped by books and film – do you think this is helpful or misleading?

Good question! I think robots in science fiction are both helpful and misleading. Helpful because many roboticists, myself included, were inspired by science fiction, and also because SF provides us with some great examples of ‘thought experiments’ for what future robots might perhaps be like – think of the movie AI, or Data from Star Trek. (Of course there are some terrible examples as well!)

But robots in science fiction are misleading too. They have created an expectation of what robots are (or should be) like that means that many people are disappointed by real-world robots. This is a great shame because real-world robots are – in many ways – much more exciting than the fantasy robots in the movies. And the misleading impression of robots from SF makes being a roboticist harder, because we sometimes have to explain why robotics has ‘failed’ – which of course it hasn’t!

Professor Peter McOwan

In Interview: Peter McOwan

Professor Peter McOwan

Professor Peter McOwan

Meet roboticist Peter McOwan, Professor of Computer Science in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London. At Robotville Peter will be showcasing software he has built that helps robots understands our emotions

How did you become involved in robotic research?

My interest started in artificial intelligence, understanding the brain using maths, then seeing how I could use that maths in a robot to help give it human like abilities, still a long way to go!

Your software teaches robots to understand emotions but how long until a robot shows preference, or ” falls in love” with someone?

Ah well ‘what is love’? Love shows in the way you feel and act, it’s how you take in information about the object of your desire, and react to them. Arguably then, love is really just a special type of brain information processing. Deep inside our brains when we fall in love the nerve cells change the way they connect and signal to each other. Perhaps in the future we will understand how this happens and perhaps be able to build a machine that can perform this complex information processing task. At present our robot can read your expressions and it can be programmed to respond to them, smiling back at you when you smile at it - awww bless. The robot can even ‘know’ who you are and pull an especially sweet looking face when you look and smile its way, but would that be love? Not quite yet I expect.

Would that ever lead them to reprioritise or even change their programming?

If falling in love changes the way a human acts, they way their brain cells interact, then mimicking this in a computer could cause the same type of effect. But robots are basically complicated mechanical and electronic tools. Would it be useful for your vacuum cleaner to recognise you? Possibly yes so it can’t be stolen. But would it be useful for your vacuum cleaner to have a crush on you? Probably not.

In 2008, Nokia developed an anthropomimetic robot with an ‘imagination’. What further developments have there been in this field and are we any closer, or have we achieved a robot with a stream of consciousness? How does your emotion software sit within this field? Submitted by Luke

Our system detects the changes in human faces when we make expressions. Often we make expressions to signal our emotions to other humans, it’s a kind of useful social signaling code. Our robots then take the facial expression and react to it given a set of rules we have programmed. At present it’s as simple as that, that’s all our robots need to do to be useful ‘slightly socially aware’ tools at present.

Of course looking at the outside of the robot it’s easy for humans to believe there is a lot more going on, our brains love to process faces and social signals and build stories, making things seem more ‘human’ than they are. We all assume that there is a stream of consciousness going on in others when we observe them, and that imagination is in there too playing a part. All of this comes from the electrochemical signals swirling in our brains, and no one really understands how that all works yet, so it would be difficult to build a robot to mimic it directly.

Of course we can build part of the computer program that takes input patterns and looks for similar patterns in stored or previously learned patterns, or just creates new random patterns to output and call it ‘imagination’, and in some way it is doing a bit of what our imagination does. These sorts of experiments are useful because it lets us test our understanding, and perhaps over time as new facts about the brain emerge we can refine these to make them more human. But it’s a long road ahead.

Apple’s recent iPhone update includes what some are claiming to be the first consumer robot. How relevant is this and do you think this idea of robots in our pockets will have a wider impact on robotic research and developments?

Robots = tools, if it’s useful for us to have robots in our pockets, or on our phones, even if they have limited abilities, they can be developed. What we can cram onto the processors in phones today is limited, but as the technology improves we will be able to do more. But in the end what will drive it will be the need for that tool to be able to help us do something that’s useful for us.

What are the ongoing cultural implications of your latest research and how do you think they will affect everybody’s day to day lives?

The view of robots differs in different parts of the world. In Japan for example where robots are big business they are seen as a positive thing. In the west there are more mixed feeling perhaps coloured by the frequent portrayal of robots as sinister baddies in movies and TV shows. As part of (our research project) LIREC we are looking at people’s concerns, hopes and fears for the technology that we are developing, and that’s important. This way we can design robots in a way that they become beneficial technological aids to improve human life, tools to make things better.

Nick Hawes

In Interview: Nick Hawes

Nick HawesMeet roboticist Nick Hawes, a lecturer in the School of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham. He is bringing his robot, Dora the Explorer, to our Robotville festival.

How did you become involved in robotic research?

When I was at school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, so I chose to study Artificial Intelligence (at the University of Birmingham) because I didn’t really believe that it was a real subject. I quickly fell in love with the idea of building intelligent systems, so stayed in Birmingham to do a PhD in AI for video games. It was only a few years later when I joined an ambitious project that wanted to use some of the ideas from my PhD to help build a cognitive robot that I moved away from virtual worlds and built things that ran in the real world. From then on I was hooked on robotic research.

How did you become involved in using robots for exploration?

We were interested in studying how robots could automatically extend their own knowledge about their worlds. We already had a robot that could build maps of its environment, but it had to be directed by a human using a joystick. Therefore it seemed like a natural extension to see if we could get the robot to take over from the human and guide the exploration itself.

What can Dora do?

The Dora robot can explore space to build up a map. It can choose where to explore based on how likely it is that a particular direction of exploration will produce interesting results (like previously unknown rooms). Dora can also search for objects, either in order to tell a human where they are, or to work out what kind of rooms are in the building (e.g. if it sees a kettle it will realise it is in a kitchen). Dora can also interact with humans in a limited way, by asking questions about the location of objects.

Dora the explorer robot

Do you think robots like Dora will become a household necessity?

I’m not sure they will become a necessity (unless we all become unable to care for ourselves!), but they will certainly become a luxury item in the future. It will be possible to order them from an online electronics store one day and have them arrive and start work the next. The big problem will then be training your robot to understand the layout of your home and the routines of your household. This is where we hope our work on exploration and curiosity will make people’s lives easier, as the robot will be motivated to learn things for itself, rather than wait to be taught everything.

Are the costs of transporting robots too prohibitive to send one to Mars? Submitted by Steve

The answer has to be no, as NASA has already sent two robots to Mars: Spirit and Opportunity. This has cost in excess of $900 million! One interesting question is not the cost of transport, but the difficulties of controlling robots once they get to Mars. The delay of a radio signal between Earth and Mars can be over half an hour, so this precludes any direct control by a human (just imagine playing a game where every command you send takes 30 minutes to have any effect!). Therefore these robots must be equipped with forms of Artificial Intelligence to allow them to safely make decisions for themselves with only limited human intervention.

Does the software that is tasked with being curious continuously increase its capacity to explore / make connections is it getting more creative? Submitted by Charlie and Jake

I would say that it doesn’t really increase its capacity to explore (except beyond software that isn’t curious at all), but it does have a limitless appetite for exploration. Unless you artificially restrict its mobility, Dora will just keep trying to explore until its batteries run out or it gets stuck somewhere. A few years ago we were demonstrating Dora in a corridor that led to some toilets. Someone had left the door to the women’s toilets open, and before we knew it Dora had wandered off in there. Unfortunately, as our research team was all male at the time, we had to wait for someone female to come along to retrieve Dora!

Our view of robots is shaped by books and film do you think this is helpful or misleading?

I think it’s mostly a good thing, as fiction (books, films and increasingly video games) motivate and inspire a large number of people to work in science and engineering to produce exciting and useful technologies such as robots. The main downside is that the reality of robotics research is a long way away from the images portrayed in fiction, so we risk disappointing people when we are unable to provide them with the robots that they imagine are possible. However, as you’ll see at Robotville, the robots that exist now are all really exciting in their own ways, and will only improve as more time and effort is dedicated to them.

Apple’s recent iphone update includes what some are claiming to be the first consumer robot. How relevant is this and do you think this idea of robots in our pockets will have a wider impact on robotic research and developments?

Whilst there have been consumer robots before Siri (including vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers and toys), the importance of Siri is that it demonstrates that it is possible to produce software that consumers can interact with about a range of tasks in a natural fashion (even if the results are not always perfect). Perhaps the biggest impact of the development of computers in our pockets will be the expectation that all our devices should share information to make our lives easier. For example my phone should know when I’m nearly home so that it can tell a future version of Dora to put the kettle on.

What are the ongoing cultural implications of your latest research?

Robots will change the way we live and work. The change will start from limited, well-defined tasks (such as robots that clean the floor and cars that park themselves) but will gradually become more noticeable across the whole of society. Some of the larger cultural questions we will ultimately need to face include whether we are happy to let robots care for our sick and elderly, and who is responsible when a robot that can learn and make decisions for itself causes some kind of problem.