Welcome to the machines

Welcome to the machinesRobot expert Professor Kevin Warwick reckons that while the robots in BBC TV’s Robot Wars are not actually doing anything advanced in technology, what they are doing is advancing a notion to teenagers that technology is fun and thought provoking, which can only be good for the future of the industry. Roy Rubenstein
Hillary Clinton once said that us foreigners should not simply accept everything but should select the cherries from American culture. Presumably we must also send back the cherry stones across the Atlantic.
With one of the more recent imports, Robot Wars, now a regular on our TV screens, should we admire the blossom of enlightenment or should we store up phlegm ready for one almighty spit all the way back to Hollywood?
One thing Robot Wars – shown on BBC – has done is to put science and technology onto our TV screens in a relatively big way.
For politicians, a stroll across Clapham Common makes the news, whereas with pop singers merely getting married or divorced is enough to do the trick. Meanwhile for anything to do with science a Nobel Prize is usually required for an item to warrant more than 30 seconds of peak viewing.  
So, if Robot Wars is, in its way, putting over the fact that it is fun, and thought provoking, to get involved with technology, then good luck to it.
If you have not yet seen the programme, then roughly speaking home-made, radio-controlled metal clad vehicles battle it out firstly through a challenge run and then, like Gladiators in the ring, to see which one can survive the longest. The last one still moving is the winner. Almost anything goes, chain saws, battering rams, electric drills, the armoury is as diverse as it is gruesome. Power for the machines is provided in all sorts of ways from electric power to petrol driven.
Naturally, in the stuffy senior common rooms of the academic world, cobwebbed boffins may take a purist view and question whether such vehicles can be called ‘robots’. My own view, from a very unstuffy Reading, is “What the hell, it is a free world.” If it interests the public and turns on new designers and technology ideas people of the future, then let us go for it, it is okay with me.
In UK universities, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit good quality students to study science. They are quite simply not coming through in numbers from schools. Whilst ‘we’ all know that science and technology is what changes things in the world, not politicians or pop singers, it is the most exciting thing going; that message just is not getting through to teenagers.
So maybe Robot Wars can turn the tide.
Being the poor academic that I am, I spent Christmas in Prague, and happened to visit the grave of Karel Capek, where celebrations were taking place to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. Karel is credited with popularising the word ‘robot’ in his play of the 1920s, Rossum’s Universal Robots.
The robots in question were thinking, autonomous, humanoid robots; the original word relating to ‘work’ and in particular dumb, slavish human agricultural labourers. Rossum meanwhile also roughly means knowledge or information!
However, since that time the word robot has been used to describe anything from potato planting machines, through industrial welders to sci-fi creatures, such as K9, R2D2 and even The Terminator. So is it appropriate to use the same word for the machines in Robot Wars?
In order to investigate the planet Mars, the Sojourner Rover ‘robot’ explorer was completely remote controlled by humans on Earth (well Houston anyway). A feat for which it was awarded the ultimate prize of a place on the same page as myself in the Guinness Book of Records.
However, Sojourner cost many millions of dollars to put together. Does anyone question the use of the word robot for that? I think not.
Then there are animatronics robots that seem to turn up in just about every film nowadays. Jurassic Park and Jaws are two of the most famous. Some of these extend to remote control but many of them operate purely on mechanical leverage. No questions that these too are robots.
Then there is the time and effort put in by the creators of the machines, which form centre stage on Robot Wars. Sure there are students whose efforts may go towards formal project requirements but there are also college workers, school children and employees who have used their spare time. The ingenuity employed, the novel ideas, originality and the sheer volume of effort put in is simply staggering. I am astounded by it and compliment them all.
Two weeks ago I was on an ITV programme Top Ten of Everything with the creator of Cruella, one of the Robot Wars competitors. The enthusiasm and excitement he expounded was immeasurable. If only some of that enthusiasm could ripple out and wash against the teenage population, then we will have an easier job in recruiting technology students.
So, I will sit back and enjoy watching Philippa Forester and Craig Charles conduct the proceedings on Robot Wars and develop enthusiasm for the competition. Maybe it is just good TV, maybe it glorifies violence too much, but it is good viewing and if it turns on just one robot designer of tomorrow, then it will have been worth it.
In the future robots will be far more intelligent than humans. The big question is, will they be interested in watching Human Wars and will they argue over what is a human and what is not?
Remote control of humans, via electronic signals on to the nervous system is starting to happen even now, in a rudimentary way. The worry with Robot Wars is not so much whether we are giving humans bad ideas but if we will give robots those ideas.
Professor Kevin Warwick is head of the Department of Cybernetics at the University of Reading.
The latest series of Robot Wars is nearing its conclusion this Friday evening on BBC1

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