The Diary: Aye, robot but no scary stuff

Prof Roger moore and Prof Roger moore with ther new robot at the Computer Science Department at Sheffield University
Prof Roger moore and Prof Roger moore with ther new robot at the Computer Science Department at Sheffield University
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THERE are no C3PO look-alikes at the Sheffield Centre for Robots. There are no Decepticons. There are no T-1000s waiting to rise up and wreak nuclear apocalypse on Earth.

Which is good news. Obviously.

The bad news is director Professor Tony Prescott won’t rule out that last scenario ever happening.

“It’s beyond highly unlikely,” he says. “But when you’re dealing with artificial intelligence, there are unknowns.”

Eek.

Be warned, then, that might just make Sheffield the future setting for Terminator: The Real Life Version. Because, The Diary can today reveal, the UK’s second biggest robot research space is set to open here in autumn.

The 750-square-foot complex will occupy the first floor of the new £21 million Sheffield University building currently under construction in Newcastle Street. It will provide a base for 80 academics - working across 12 separate departments at both city universities - whose work touches on robotics and artificial intelligence.

And while you won’t find Wall-E wandering about just yet, there will be a fascinating array of futurist machines being worked on.

Think helmets that can ‘see’, rat-like droids with whiskers to sense, and mini swarm machines which will one day perform search and rescue tasks. Think boffins working on how robots can be used to help in places like prisons, hospitals and farms, and, of course, how experimenting with artificial intelligence can be done safely.

Oh, and think of the little chap pictured here, Zeno, a machine made of 36 motors, 14 sensors, three microphones and two cameras, currently being used to research everything from how robots might most effectively walk to how they can understand speech.

“He’s an experimental testbed,” says Tony, head of cognitive neuroscience at Sheffield University. “His human look is actually quite unusual. The thing with robots in fiction is they tend to look like Zeno - there’s this idea that one day there will be human butlers. That’s not quite right. We invent robots to do tasks humans find difficult, so to be better equipped to do those tasks they are less likely to resemble us. An example would be a vacuum cleaner that knows when you’re out and cleans. Robots will eventually look more like R2D2 than C3PO.”

The centre itself, called SCentRo, has been running for two years. But it has previously had no base, meaning different researchers were doing different work in different buildings and only occasionally coming together to share information.

“This new home will help us co-ordinate more,” says Professor Roger Moore, chair of spoken language processing. “I genuinely think the work being done here will lead to a better world. Robotics is something the city is at the cutting edge of. This will really help us move forward.”