PROFESSOR Sethu Vijayakumar is giving a whistle stop tour of the School of Informatics at Edinburgh University. It is a hive of activity with equations scribbled on whiteboards, complex coding being tapped into computers and the constant hum of machinery in the background.

In a lab stands a gleaming white robot. At first glance it has an almost cartoonish appearance with a Buzz Lightyear-esque barrel chest and hefty thighs that could rival Sir Chris Hoy in his prime. Squint your eyes and it looks like the hotter, younger brother of C-3PO from Star Wars.

Although that is to perhaps to do frivolous disservice to what is a remarkable feat of ingenious engineering. NASA Valkyrie, one of the most advanced humanoid robots in the world, is worth $2.5m (£2m) and being developed for a mission to Mars.

Vijayakumar is heading an Edinburgh-based team as part of a research collaboration with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas. The aim is that Valkyrie, a name taken from Norse mythology, will be able to work alongside astronauts or carry out high-risk tasks in place of humans.

“We’ve had trips to the moon and astronauts inhabit the International Space Station, but when you start thinking about slightly further away planets such as Mars there are additional challenges to consider,” explains Vijayakumar, who is director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics.

“You are no longer able to tele-operate robotic systems. You can’t move a joystick and have it respond in real time because of the time delay and distance from earth. That means building significant autonomy into the platform.”

Autonomous robots are intelligent machines capable of performing without explicit human control. With Valkyrie this refers to the minute-by-minute operation in terms of balance, control and spatial awareness such as avoiding bumping into humans or other robots.

It is expected that Valkyrie – which stands 1.8m (5ft 10in) tall and weighs 125kg (19st) – could begin its inaugural Mars missions as early as 2020, although humans won’t follow until at least 2030.

“We had to build in dexterous capabilities such as being able to open doors, grasp objects, recognising things for itself and crawling through narrow spaces,” says Vijayakumar.

“The real vision for the NASA Valkyrie platform is to do what we call pre-deployment missions to Mars. These un-manned missions would go ahead of the astronauts and set-up habitats. This would allow the astronauts to go there and start their experiments without needing to construct labs and living quarters.

“When the astronauts return to earth, the habitats that are expensive to transport and maintain would be looked after by this flock of humanoid robots.”

Vijayakumar, 46, may be shooting for the stars, but he has both feet planted on terra firma. It is his belief that the Valkyrie platform can have many uses here on earth too.

“Our research aims go beyond looking at space applications,” he says. “We are looking at things such as disaster recovery scenarios, medical rehabilitation and developing exoskeletons for humans.

“The offshoot technology is being used right now. For example, we work with companies like Hitachi and Honda in things such as intelligent warehousing solutions that take out the boring, repetitive work and make it far more efficient and cost effective.

“We are also working with the SMART Centre at the Astley Ainslie Hospital in Edinburgh to develop active prosthesis for people with lower and upper limb amputations.”

Stephen Hawking has warned in the past that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”.

Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak and Elon Musk – the founders of Microsoft, Apple and SpaceX respectively – have also expressed concerns about the direction that the technology is heading.

With a raft of sci-fi TV shows such as Westworld and Humans adding fuel to the fire, the idea that AI machines will one day rise up and take over the world has arguably never seemed more real.

“Science fiction has always been the forbearer of new technologies,” smiles Vijayakumar. “People who are creative and in the arts have always been one step ahead of scientists in terms of thinking about innovative use of technology.”

What he does advocate, however, is the need to better understand the long-term implications that technological advances such as AI pose for our society.

“There was a debate in the European Parliament about ‘rights for robots’. If you have got an autonomous driving car and there is an accident who is liable for that? Is it the software engineer? The hardware manufacturer? The company who assembled or sold it?

“If we talk about robotic or intelligent systems as entities it was mooted that these systems should pay taxes like humans. To co-exist in this world there is the idea that money should be put into a pot that would pay for cases where it is unclear where the responsibilities lie.”

Vijayakumar joined Edinburgh University as a lecturer in 2003. He was director of the Institute of Perception, Action and Behaviour (IPAB) from 2005 to 2015. Vijayakumar has held a personal chair in robotics, co-funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Microsoft Research, since 2010.

His portfolio of research projects comprises three parallel strands: machine learning for robotics, understanding human motor control and the design of customised robotic solutions for the healthcare, oil and gas industries.

Vijayakumar is sanguine about his ambitions. “We are looking at real world problems and are not just sitting in an ivory tower doing research that is not relevant to society,” he attests.

His interests extend far beyond the lab: Vijayakumar is a judge on the rebooted cult BBC series Robot Wars, a regular Edinburgh International Science Festival participant and helped launch the BBC micro:bit initiative aimed at getting UK school children interested in coding.

The eldest of two children, he grew up in India and regularly moved around throughout his childhood due to his father’s job as a government engineer. Born in Kerala, Vijayakumar did his early schooling in Tamil Nadu before moving to Calcutta and later New Delhi.

These formative years stood him in good stead for a future academic career traversing the globe. His impressive CV includes a PhD from the Tokyo Institute of Technology and a post doctorate fellowship from the University of California where Vijayakumar also held his first faculty position.

“Travelling the world opens your mind to so many different cultures,” he says. “You become very receptive and that has helped me a lot. It is almost like nothing shocks me now.”

He is married to Shrija Kumari, 41, who formerly specialised in dental technology but now teaches science at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh. The couple met on a blind date at a fireworks festival while studying in Japan. They have two daughters Maithili, 12, and Deepti, eight.

Away from work Vijayakumar can typically be found with a racquet or bat in his hand. He is a keen cricketer and also plays badminton, table tennis and squash.

His only chagrin is “not being at all musically talented” although adds: “Thankfully my wife and kids tilt the balance. My wife plays the veena and my eldest daughter the violin, while my youngest daughter is learning the clarinet. ”

Vijayakumar describes himself as having been a “massively curious” child, but insists he was never your typical bookish academic in waiting. “I wasn’t a scientific geek or anything like that,” he says. “But I had a habit of opening things up and typically breaking objects around the house.”

When he was eight, Vijayakumar got lost in a New Delhi market after becoming enthralled in watching the mechanism of a printing press. “I was fascinated and stopped to look. My parents didn’t realise and when they turned round I was gone. They had to get help to find me.”

This burning desire to understand and innovate is what continues to drive him today. “You need to think outside the box and be prepared to throw everything away, start afresh from a blank slate and look at things anew. I think that is my biggest asset: the curiosity has never left me.”