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Ground-breaking research to develop ‘conscious’ robot


Researchers at the Universities of Essex and Bristol will soon be launching a ground-breaking project to develop a ‘conscious’ robot.

The aim of the project, which involves computer scientists and neuropsychologists, is to advance the technology of intelligent machines, while also extending the understanding of human consciousness.

Owen Holland, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, who will lead the three-year project at Essex, explained: ‘Consciousness is perhaps the last remaining mystery in understanding what it is to be human. By attempting to build physical systems which can produce a form of artificial consciousness, we hope to learn more about the nature of consciousness.’

The project has won funding worth £493,290 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) Adventure Fund, an initiative launched to support highly adventurous and risky research that challenges current conventions and explores new boundaries. Only 13 projects from almost 700 applications were successful in obtaining funding.

The robot at the heart of the project will be designed and built at the University of Essex, home to one of the UK’s largest mobile robotics groups. It will operate in a state of the art robotics research laboratory scheduled for completion next year as part of a new £6.3 million building to be shared between the Computer Science and Electronic Systems Engineering departments.

At the University of Bristol Psychology Department, Professor Tom Troscianko, an expert in the neuropsychology of primate vision, will lead a team developing the parts of the robot’s ‘brain’ that will deal with vision. Much of what we know about consciousness comes from studies of visual experience and visual imagination, and so it is important for the artificial systems to match the systems of humans and apes as closely as possible.

The aim is to put the robots in a complex environment where they will have to imagine themselves trying out various actions before choosing the best one. Powerful computer systems will analyse and display what is going on the robot’s ‘brain’, enabling the scientists to search for signs of consciousness.

Owen Holland explained: ‘Like all the projects in the Adventure Fund, there is quite a high risk of failure. However, whether we succeed in detecting consciousness or not, this project will certainly allow us to learn more about the operation of complex human-like visual systems, and will enable ourselves and others to build robots with better-developed artificial intelligence in the future.

Kate Cleveland | alfa
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