Research into how far we can trust robots will be undertaken in Edinburgh, writes JULENA DRUMI
Robots used to be part of fantasy fiction, appearing in a futuristic stories, either as friendly machines or alien enemies. Now they are all around us, undertaking labour-intensive work in factories, and increasingly as interactive assistants.
Talking robots – the type who answer questions on bank statements or provide a welcome at the hotel desk – have become commonplace.
As for “thinking” robots… well, they are becoming a bit of a challenge. Drones and self-driving cars are all around us and new research led by Heriot-Watt University will explore if this latest generation of robots can be trusted.
Heriot-Watt, on the western fringe of Edinburgh, is home to the National Robotarium, a £3 million project bringing together expertise in robotics, cognitive science and psychology with colleagues from Imperial College London and the University of Manchester.
Autonomous systems that make decisions and perform tasks without human intervention are already deployed in industry. However, their use is largely limited to controlled settings, such as on automated production lines. The systems struggle when the task becomes more complex or the environment is uncontrolled, for example, when drones are used for offshore windfarm inspection.
The TAS programme will undertake research to ensure that autonomous systems are safe, reliable, resilient, ethical – and trusted.
The project, led by Professor Helen Hastie from Heriot-Watt University and the Edinburgh Centre of Robotics, will explore solutions to manage trust in autonomous systems, covering scenarios that require interaction with humans.
Examples include self-driving cars, autonomous wheelchairs or ‘cobots’ in the workforce. The group’s work will help design the autonomous systems of the future, ensuring they are widely used and accepted in a variety of industry-relevant applications.
Professor Hastie explains: “The challenge of managing trust between the human and the system is particularly difficult because there can be a lack of mutual understanding of the task and the environment.
“The new consortium will perform foundational research on how humans, robots and autonomous systems can work together by building a shared reality through human-robot interaction.
“By adopting a multidisciplinary approach, grounded in psychology and cognitive science, systems will learn situations where trust is typically lost unnecessarily, adapting this prediction for specific people and contexts.
“We will explore how to best establish, maintain and repair trust by incorporating the subjective view of humans towards autonomous systems, with the goal being to increase adoption and maximise their positive societal and economic benefits.
“Trust will be managed through transparent interaction, increasing the confidence of those using autonomous systems, allowing them to be adopted in scenarios never before thought possible.
“This might include jobs that currently endanger humans, such as pandemic-related tasks or those in hazardous environments.”