New research will help robots know their limits

A team of UK researchers is embarking on a collaborative project to ensure that the autonomous robots we build in the future will be safer, making decisions that are ethical and follow legislation on robotics.

Sandor Veres and flying robotsRobots that can think and act without human intervention are moving from fiction to reality. The nuclear, aerospace, manufacturing and agricultural industries are starting to develop autonomous systems that can carry out tasks that are either too difficult or too dangerous for humans, while driverless cars are already with us.

Researchers at the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and the West of England, Bristol have set up a new project to address concerns that might arise around these new technologies and link new developments to existing industrial standards and responsible innovation frameworks. Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the £1.4M project will continue until 2018.

"This project brings together world-leading teams from these three universities to develop formal verification techniques for tackling questions of safety, ethics, legality and reliability across a range of autonomous systems," explains Professor Michael Fisher, principal investigator at Liverpool.

He adds: "Each of the three institutions will make a distinctive contribution to the project, with Liverpool’s particular focus being the development and extension of our leading formal verification techniques and tools. These provide strong mathematical proof about the decisions the systems will make and so allow us, in collaboration with Sheffield and UWE, to apply these techniques across a broad variety of complex autonomous systems."

The University of Sheffield brings key expertise in terms of autonomous control, learning and decision-making. "We need robots that can make difficult decisions, but they must also be able to manage this in situations that are complicated by humans,” says Professor Sandor Veres of Sheffield Robotics.

"One example of where this is important is in the automotive industry. An autonomous car might have to choose between two bad decisions: hit a car cutting across the street unexpectedly, or brake suddenly so that the car behind is unable to stop. The onboard system would need to be able to calculate rapidly the possible outcomes of a number of different actions in order to arrive at an acceptable decision. Overall passenger and pedestrian safety will be improved."

The role of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), a collaboration between UWE and the University of Bristol, will be to research, develop and demonstrate verifiably 'ethical' robots.

Professor Alan Winfield, of the BRL, says: "If robots are to be trusted, especially when interacting with humans, they will need to be more than just safe. We’ve already shown that a simple laboratory robot can be minimally ethical, in a way that is surprisingly close to Asimov’s famous laws of robotics. We now need to prove that such a robot will always act ethically, while also understanding how useful ethical robots would be in the real world."

"Our project will demonstrate the abilities of robotic systems to take decisions based on ethics, law and safety grounds and provide further guidance to legislators and robot developers," adds Professor Veres.

Additional information

Engineering in Sheffield

The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sheffield - the Times Higher Education 2014 number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction - is one of the biggest and best engineering faculties in the UK. Its seven departments include over 4,000 of the brightest students and 900 staff, and have research-related income worth more than £50M per annum from government, industry and charity sources. Its research income recently overtook the University of Cambridge, confirming its status as one of the best institutions in the world to study engineering. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) confirmed that two thirds of the research carried out was either Internationally Excellent or Internationally Leading.

The Faculty’s expertise is extensive – its academic departments and two interdisciplinary programme areas cover all the engineering disciplines. They are leaders in their fields and outstanding contributors to the development of new knowledge, with world-leading academics linking their research to the teaching of the engineers of tomorrow.

The Faculty has a long tradition of working with industry including Rolls-Royce, Network Rail and Siemens. Its industrial successes are exemplified by the award-winning Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and the new £25 million Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC).

The Faculty of Engineering is committed to ensuring students studying at Sheffield continue to benefit from world-class labs and teaching space through the provision of the University's new Engineering Graduate School. This brand new building, which will become the centre of the faculty´s postgraduate research and postgraduate teaching activities, will form the first stage in a 15 year plan to improve and extend the existing estate in a bid to provide students with the best possible facilities while improving their student experience.

Engineering in Sheffield

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.

The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via research Councils UK.


For further information please contact:

Shemina Davis
Media Relations Manager
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 5339