The Appliance of Science Fiction

Article excerpt

Byline: By DAVID WILLIAMSON Western Mail

Students at a Welsh university are to begin preparing for a world shared with intelligent robots. A new degree in robotics will teach students how to apply science fiction in science.

The release of the big-screen adaptation of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot has fuelled speculation about whether robots designed as servants could attempt to become our masters.

Dr Mike Reddy at the University of Glamorgan is determined to take these questions from the realm of science fiction and explore them in the new BSc Science (Robotics) degree.

He said, 'Films like I, Robot and Artificial Intelligence have raised issues of how we treat robots, but, more importantly, how they might treat us. There is a great deal of interest and ignorance of what robotics is and will become in the future.

'We feel there is a real need for greater understanding of what a world shared with robots should be. And the best way to ensure that happens is to make the future ourselves.'

Staff at the University of Glamorgan's Centre for Astronomy and Science Education raised eyebrows when they first championed taking ideas found in science fiction and investigating them in the real world.

But the centre's head, Professor Mike Brake, has since been appointed to Nasa's Astrobiology Science Communication committee.

Dr Reddy said, 'Science fiction is fantastic. It makes somebody looking for an idea go, 'Oh, wow!', but it's a wonderful forum for saying, 'Should we do this'?'

The science fiction of the 20th century, he argues, not only created the concept of the robot but demonstrated the complexity of the threats, opportunities and moral dilemmas their arrival would spark.

When Asimov explored the possibility of sentient robots he had to imagine the existence of what was then almost unfathomable computing technology. But now robotics experts such as Hans Moravec predict that between 2020 and 2050 scientists will create a computer equal in processing power to the human brain.

The challenge to robot- builders will be to develop the software which will make use of such technology.

However, it could be just as great a challenge to create the software which would enable such a computer to use its resources to think.

'If you don't have the software it would just be a very powerful machine,' Dr Reddy said.

Despite such obstacles, he expects in the near future he will see the types of robots which today only exist in his imagination.

'Yes,' he said, 'if there's a will and there is no-one stopping us.'

He believes that when humans are confronted with intelligent robotic creations, people will be forced to reassess what constitutes 'life' and what rights these devices should have.

'We could get a world where robots might want to get the vote or become priests. …