Thursday, 12 September 2013

Features: The rise of the robots

With the opening of a £4.3m robotics facility at the University of Leeds and a year-long creative project March of the Robots being launched, Jon Cronshaw looks at why robots will be big news in 2014.

For the past century robots have captured our imaginations, filling us with a mixture of suspicion and wonder.

From the dawn of science fiction, writers have been fascinated by the idea of a machine built by man which has the ability to act and think independently of its human creators.

But the image of a robot depicted in fiction is a far cry from reality.

“It’s very different to the science fiction perception of robots as thinking machines that can be creative or that are rational. It’s more that they can just act by themselves – but they’re pretty stupid in many senses,” says Dr Robert Richardson, head of the new robotics facility at the University of Leeds.

“Making robots that look like humans is actually quite rare. The tasks you want a robot to do can be done with something much smaller and cheaper than trying to make it look human.

“If you want a robot to do the washing up, you don’t design something that looks human, you use a dishwasher,” Dr Richardson added.

The development of robots has been relatively slow when compared with other technologies. Functions that most people take for granted, such as recognising faces and voices, are still far from perfect in robots.

“Robotics is just coming into its own, and I think it’s going to impact on all our lives,” says Dr Richardson.

“With computers getting smaller and faster, robots can do things like visually perceive much easier than they could before.”

The new facility will be the national centre for robotic research, and will put Leeds on the map as the world leader in the field of robotics.

“It gives Leeds a national strength, and we hope that companies will open up locally in order to work with us. Working locally will be much better for them,” says Dr Richardson.

The facility brings together the expertise of departments across the university, including mechanical and electronic engineering, computer science and medicine. The main focus will be on three key areas.

The first is in the development of robots to use in surgical procedures. “This means putting robots into small incisions in the body so they can do surgery with less damage,” says Dr Richardson.

The second is in the area of prosthetics – making replacement limbs for those who have lost or no longer have use of their own. “We can use robots to help people who’ve had strokes to get their movement back,” says Dr Richardson.

The third is working on exploration robots which can access confined spaces such as collapsed buildings to help locate those who are trapped without putting those searching for them at risk.

In 2011, Dr Richardson used a robot to explore hidden passages in the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt.

“It was one of the most exciting things I’ve been involved with – getting to see inside the pyramid was amazing,” says Dr Richardson.

“The challenge was that it was a very small confined space, and it couldn’t make a mistake.

“You’d think that the stone inside a pyramid would be quite strong, but it’s actually really soft, so there was a constant worry that you’d scrape the walls. The robot had to be quite gentle, and really reliable – that wasn’t easy.”

Over a three-hour period, the robot slowly crawled its way up a 60m shaft which was too small for a person to climb.

“Once the robot went in, the shafts were so small there was no way of getting it out – so there was a lot of pressure,” says Dr Richardson.

Along the shaft, the robot came across a small door which opened out into a secret room. Within the room the robot discovered a series of hieroglyphics which hadn’t been seen since the pyramid was originally built over 4,500 years ago.

But it’s not just boffins in lab coats who will be thinking about robots over the next year. Playful Leeds are running a year-long project called March of the Robots.

The project is being led by Emma Bearman who gives herself the tongue-in-cheek title chief officer of play at Playful Leeds.

“We’re interested in seeing how we can come together as a city and be really resourceful and really creative. And without being too nerdy, explore technology and who we are as humans,” say Emma.

The March of the Robots will include a range of creative activities and events across the city, with the intention of building a robot for Leeds in April. “We want to find out from people what it should look and feel like, what it would do,” says Emma.

“All you have to do is scratch the surface and you find the pioneering medical robots that are being developed at the university – these amazing things are happening right under our noses.”

Of course, there are negative aspects of robots that Playful Leeds also want people to think about. “It’s not just us going ‘aren’t robots great’, there’s another side to it,” says Emma. “The genie’s out of the bottle in a lot of ways, and there’s definitely a dark side to it all. When you automate everything, it’s going to put people out of work. How do we feel about drones and robots being used in warfare?

“Do we want robots looking after our old people? We do need to have conversations about robots because this stuff is happening.

“I suppose we need to ask ourselves where we want to be in this story.

“Do you want to be ahead of the robots or behind them?”

The March of the Robots was launched with an online campaign to fund a bid to bring a 1950s robot, Cygan, back to Leeds. It went up for auction at Christie’s on September 5.

“We were interested in Cygan because it’s a great talking point to get people thinking about robots and what that means to them,” says Emma.

Playful Leeds raised £7,179 from 117 separate pledges to try to buy Cygan for the city.

Unfortunately the campaign to bring the robot back to Leeds was unsuccessful with it fetching £17,500 at the auction. Instead the organisation aim to build a robot for Leeds.

Playful Leeds may not have succeeded in buying Cygan, but they have certainly got people talking about robots.


Playful Leeds formed in January 2012 as a project investigating how the people of Leeds can contribute to the future of the city through playful and creative activities.

The project aims to pool the resources of business, academia, public agencies, voluntary organisations and the people of Leeds to get people excited about the city.

The project promotes the idea that all individuals are creative even if they don’t think they are, and the more creativity that surrounds them, the more enthusiasm they will feel about where they live.

“How do we give ourselves permission as a city to play? Especially in a culture of receding services and cuts, how do we get people together to have a good time and make stuff happen?” says Emma Bearman, chief officer of play at Playful Leeds. “It’s about being imaginative and having fun – daring to dream and being a bit daft.

“We want Leeds to be a place where people are willing to just try stuff out – it doesn’t matter if it works. It’s about having a go and being ambitious, no matter how much money you’ve got in your back pocket.”


Cygan the robot was created in the 1950s by Italian engineer Dr Ing Fiorito.

Standing at over eight foot in height, Cygan was first unveiled at the 25th Milan Sample Fair in 1957.

The robot could walk, turn and lift objects. He was programmed to respond to voice commands and could interpret signals given to it by using lights.

In 1958 Cygan opened the British Food Fair at Olympia, London.

In the late-1960s, the robot was bought by Tate of Leeds Ford dealership, where it was renamed ‘Mr Moto.’

In the 70s he was bought by a private collector.

“He encapsulates that excitement about new frontiers being found in the 50s and 60s with things like space travel and technology that was coming through,” says Charlotte Young, head of sale at Christie’s.

“He no longer works, but as a relic of that time it’s quite exciting to stand in front of him and think of him working. He was so advanced for his time. He’s got loads of personality.

“He really is a monument to the atomic era. He really shows the breadth of what they thought these machines could do for us,” added Charlotte.

This article was originally published by the Yorkshire Evening Post and Yorkshire Post on September 12, 2013.

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