Any Further Questions: Dr Noel Sharkey | Living North

Any Further Questions: Dr Noel Sharkey


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Dr Noel Sharkey, Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at Sheffield University and Head Judge on Robot Wars, talks about building his dream bot, demonstrating a humanoid for Abu Dhabi’s royal family, and stopping killer robots

As Head Judge on Robot Wars, you’ve seen a lot of robots. Do you have a soft spot for any in particular?
I have a bit of a soft spot for the house robots Matilda, Sir Killalot and Dead Metal. They are wonderfully engineered machines. But as far as competition robot are concerned, I have a soft spot for all of them. As a judge it would be inappropriate to favour one over another.

Does it ever upset you to see these pieces of engineering flayed across the arena?
Not when they are fighting each other. That is what Robot Wars is about, although I often sympathise with the competitors. What did upset me in some of the old series was when house robots would attack robots for no reason and destroy them unjustly. It made great TV, but it was unfair to people who had spent long hours and a lot of time and money building a robot. I felt a duty to have very stiff words with the controllers afterwards. In the reboot there is a lot more respect for the teams’ efforts.

If you were entering your own robot, what design would you go for and what would it be called?
None of my robots would last seconds against the amazing machines in Robot Wars. I’m always amazed at the teams’ creative engineering skills. As a robotics professor, my work has been on developing computer-controlled robots for academic work and exhibitions. A fantasy fighting robot for me would be supersonic, small, dense and heavy with a millimetre’s ground clearance and armed with a powerful spinning bar that could double as a flipper and an axe. It would be able to jump out of the pit and and crush others. I would call it Dreambot.

What was the last robot you saw which really surprised you with how advanced it was?
Atlas by Boston Dynamics is the most advanced humanoid robot. It can walk in snow, get up when pushed over and even open a door and walk out – a particularly hard task for a robot. The most impressive that I have worked with is Reem B, belonging to the Abu Dhabi royal family. I demonstrated and explained it for them and 300 of their guests in a televised show. It could run, talk, recognise faces, navigate and climb stairs.

How close are we to really convincing artificial intelligence (AI) – and how do we control it once we have it?
There is too much hype about artificial intelligence growing out of science fiction. AI is making astonishing headway in single tasks that will revolutionise our households and cars and in winning world championship games. But in general artificial intelligence as smart as us is nowhere to be seen and I wouldn’t hold my breath for it.

If you had to share a flat with a robot from popular culture, who would you move in with?
That would have to be C-3PO from Star Wars. It is not my favourite science fiction robot, but it would make a fun companion as long as it knew when to shut up. And most importantly, it would not kill me.

Sheffield’s a famously green city – what’s your favourite open space in the city?
I have walked my big Irish Setter in so many of Sheffield’s beautiful green spaces but if forced, I would choose the ancient Ecclesall Woods. It is massive and so varied.

What’s your favourite Yorkshire view?
My favourite views are around the Ladybower Dam and the Derwent Valley – but they are just in Derbyshire (oops!).
Where’s your favourite place to eat in Yorkshire?
My house. I am a very passionate vegetarian cook.

What’s your greatest achievement to date? 
Being one of the founding leaders of a large international coalition of NGOs called the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. We are working hard and making great progress at the UN to ensure that killing people is always under the control of humans.

Published in: December 2016

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