What to expect from Dyson's new robotics lab
By Dr Nick Hawes
James Dyson’s decision to fund a robotics laboratory at Imperial College London may not lead to the super advanced robot friends of our dreams, but what he has planned could make robotic domestic appliances significantly more realistic.
The Dyson Robotics Laboratory is a £5 million collaboration between the British-based domestic technology company and one of the UK’s leading computer science departments. Researchers at the centre will investigate how to help robots not only sense their surroundings but be able to identify objects within their immediate environment. This, it is hoped, will mean a robot could sort out your dirty washing or clear a table.
It seems everyone is getting in on the robotics act lately. The UK government has highlighted the field among its eight top priorities for science spending and the European Commission has pledged new funding for robotics research.
Google has bought both Boston Dynamics, famous for its animal-like robots, and artificial intelligence specialists DeepMind. Amazon, meanwhile, is teasing us with promises of deliveries-by-drone in the future.
Dyson’s comments about creating “machines that see and think in the way that we do” have inevitably led to excitement about futuristic robot servants. We should try to contain our excitement on this front as we are likely to be disappointed. It is highly unlikely the Dyson lab or any of the other bold plans announced over the past 12 months will lead to robots capable of learning or acting like humans. Most robots, even the most sophisticated, are still usually only capable of doing one thing. The difficulties of robotic perception, cognition and action in the real world are such that the required general purpose intelligence is still many generations away.
But this new centre is not about general purpose intelligence. It is focusing on 3D sensing, a fairly well understood robotics technology that could realistically produce applications in the near term future...
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