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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: News From: Industrial Robot: An International Journal, Volume 38, Issue 2
The ninth Ron Arad Lecture, organised by the British Technion Society, focussed on world leading developments in the field of robotics. Two presenters, Dr Alon Wolf, Head of the Biorobotics and Biomechanics Laboratory at the Technion in Israel, and Professor Alan Winfield, of the UWE and University of Bristol, Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the UK, provided an excellent insight into their activities (Figure 1).
One key aspect of the work at the Technion is medical robotics. One of Dr Wolf’s first developments was SpineAssist, a robotic device to guide surgeons in applying screws to fix vertebrae to solve lower back problems. Using the traditional approach, about 10 percent of screws are misplaced whereas with SpineAssist over 4,000 screws have been placed with 0 percent misplacement.
Another development is ViRob. A miniature device with a diameter of less than 1 mm. Actuation power and control are provided externally by the application of varying frequencies of magnetic field. ViRob is capable of crawling through internal vessels, for example, to deliver pharmaceutical payloads to precise locations.
More recent work at the Technion has investigated the motion of snakes to enable the replication of these creatures in a robotic device. The current design is a snake robot of 8-mm diameter and 300-mm long. This is intended to be used for surgical applications providing access to perform the operation whilst minimising the invasiveness of the procedure. Thereby, reducing the time required for the patient to recover.
Professor Winfield introduced the subject of robot ethics suggesting that this was a problem to be faced now rather than in the future. Although current robot devices are generally separated from people, such as in the industrial environment, the next generation of robots will be used within our daily lives and as such will have much more interaction with humans. Robots are under development which look very human like and can interact, for example, by providing a smile in response to a human smile.
He put forward the view that these robots will include two features: agency, the ability to decide on a course of action without human intervention, and emotional attachment between the human and the machine. Although both these features already exist in many machines, for example, the former can be found in heating systems and the latter might be true of an ipod, but these next generation robots will have both. Although these robots will have intelligence, he did not believe it would be possible to implement the Asimov “three laws of robotics” to protect humans.
Therefore, Professor Winfield proposed a need for the ethical roboticist, that is, a code of conduct. He suggested the code should include that a robot should not be designed to deceive a human into believing the robot had feelings.
Professor Winfield went on to describe work at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, the largest of its type in the UK. This includes the Ecobot III, the world’s first artificial digestive system. The robot can catch and digest flies, process them using it’s microbial fuel cells to generate power and then emit the waste. The goal of this work is to develop robots which have energy autonomy. A second area of work is the Symbrion project which is investigating how swarms of relatively simple robots, might combine and adapt together, based on bio-inspired approaches, to form different organisms to solve the problems they faced, such as passing obstacles.
In addition to disseminating the work of the two laboratories, one of the objectives of the event was to encourage partnerships between the Technion and UK universities. Dr Wolf will be visiting the UK in early 2011 to visit contacts made as a result of the lecture and is hopeful of future collaboration on advanced robotics research.