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In Interview: 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.
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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!