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Aye robot: the laws we need to rule cyborgs

ROBBY the Robot, Wall-E, R2D2 - the notion of a kind robot which carries out everyday household chores has long been the stuff of great science fiction.

But new international standards to ensure safe contact between human beings and robots could now lead to the speedy development of "caring" androids, Scottish robotics experts have predicted.

Over the last few years, robotics technology has made huge leaps forward. Robots are today being used to comfort dementia patients, interact with autistic children and for more prosaic tasks like vacuuming the home. Now the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has set out safety recommendations for robots designed as mobile servants, assistants and carers. The new standard is known as ISO 13482.

Machines capable of understanding voices and gestures and reacting to touch as well as "reading minds" by tapping into brain wave activity could one day transform the world. However, being in close contact with humans means there is also a risk of serious or fatal accidents if, for example, the robot makes a navigation error and falls down stairs or serves up a drink in a broken glass.

Unlike the broad-based Three Laws Of Robotics that sci-fi author Isaac Asimov created for his series of novels in the mid-20th century, the ISO standard covers in detail everything from the wearing of seat belts in "people carrier" robots to setting suitable speed limits for the machines, emergency stop procedures and making sure switches are clearly labelled. It also suggests environmental sensors could be used, for example, to make sure that a person wearing a robot "suit" does not accidentally venture down stairs after failing to slow down.

Robots are increasingly becoming a reality - researchers in Japan developed a seal-type robot which responds to touch and makes noises, which has been used in nursing homes to provide comfort for dementia patients. Robot companions for autistic children have also been trialled in the UK, with the idea that blank features and repetitive responses make it easier for the youngsters to interact with.

Sethu Vijayakumar, professor of robotics at Edinburgh University, which together with the city's Heriot-Watt University recently received £6 million of UK government funding for research, said the new standards would provide a way to assess how safe devices are in scenarios where they are interacting with humans.

"If you want to take any research device into production then you need financial backers and funders behind it," he said. "But the funding will not come until we have standards against which it can be compared, precisely because of the risk.

"If we don't have a clear guideline of compliance then it's hard to attribute risks and responsibilities. That is the main contribution of the ISO - it gives a baseline against which things can be compared."

Two years ago, a company in Japan began trialling an exoskeleton which can detect a brain signal instructing a human's nervous system to walk. As well as helping people with spinal injuries, for example, the suit could be used by health workers when trying to move or lift patients.

Ruth Aylett, professor of computer science at Heriot-Watt University, said addressing health and safety issues was the first step in incorporating personal care robots into the human world. But she cautioned that working out how robots will fit in to our world will also have to be dealt with. One consideration is the appearance of robots, she said, with a friendly but cartoon-like face, like Wall-E from the Pixar film, considered to be the best option.

She said: "There is a well-known effect, known in the trade as the 'uncanny valley', which says that if you make robots look too human-like they can be very disturbing and upsetting. It is because they look similar to people, but inevitably don't behave quite the same way."

The mistreatment of helpful androids is also an issue - Aylett said observations of robots used in museums have found some people react to them by swearing and being "extremely rude".

She also pointed to the example of robots used in American hospitals to transport medicines being designed to avoid people who were walking towards them.

She said: "People found this very interesting and they started herding the robots into corners. The robots would just get backed into corners. It was eventually discovered that the thing to do was just have the robots stop and not be interesting and then people would just walk by."

She added: "Many of us would like to see robots out there, but you don't want to get this wrong. A company that puts robots into this area has more than health and safety to worry about if people are offended by it."

Professor Gurvinder Virk, convener of the ISO working group that developed the standard, said: "Although robots have been around for a while, they have been mainly restricted to the manufacturing sector where they have had little or no contact with people. As this begins to change, careful risk assessment is crucial to ensuring our safety, which is exactly what ISO 13482 will help us do."

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