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New research will help robots know their limits

Robots that can think and act without human intervention are moving from fiction to reality.

Professor Sandor Veres, Sheffield Robotics

The nuclear, aerospace, manufacturing and agricultural industries are starting to develop autonomous systems that can carry out tasks that are either too difficult or too dangerous for humans, while driverless cars are already with us.

The project

Researchers at the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and the West of England, Bristol have set up a new project to address concerns that might arise around these new technologies. “This project brings together teams to develop formal verification techniques for tackling questions of safety, ethics, legality and reliability across a range of autonomous systems,” explains Professor Michael Fisher, principal investigator at Liverpool. “Each of the institutions will make a distinctive contribution to the project, with Liverpool’s focus being the development and extension of our leading formal verification techniques and tools. These provide strong mathematical proof about the decisions the systems will make and so allow us to apply these techniques across a broad variety of complex autonomous systems.”

‘They will need to be more than just safe’

The Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), a collaboration between UWE and the University of Bristol, will research, develop and demonstrate verifiably ‘ethical’ robots. “If robots are to be trusted, especially when interacting with humans, they will need to be more than just safe,” says BRL’s Professor Alan Winfield. “We’ve already shown that a simple laboratory robot can be minimally ethical, in a way that is surprisingly close to Asimov’s famous laws of robotics. We now need to prove that such a robot will always act ethically, while also understanding how useful ethical robots would be in the real world.”

Making complex decisions based on ethics

Finally, the University of Sheffield brings to the project key expertise in autonomous control, learning and decision-making. “We need robots that can make difficult decisions but they must also be able to manage this in situations that are complicated by humans,” says Professor Sandor Veres of Sheffield Robotics. “Our project will demonstrate the abilities of robotic systems to take decisions based on ethics, law and safety grounds and provide further guidance to legislators and robot developers.”