Killer cars and rebellious robots

Posted in: New initiative, Staff insight

Dr Ben Metcalfe, Lecturer in Electronic and Electrical Engineering, writes about the future of robotics and why we are launching new courses in this area:

We are on the verge of a robotics revolution.

The introduction of robotics and autonomous systems into our everyday lives is a developmental process, but some of the biggest changes have already taken place. Self-driving cars such as the Google Waymo might invoke images of the infamous “Jonnycab”, but these are no film props.

Waymo has completed over 1 million miles of autonomous driving, and in that time, there has only been one collision in which Waymo was deemed to be responsible. Car manufacturer Tesla claim that their vehicle range already contains the required hardware for fully autonomous operation, so why do they not use it?

Two reasons: appropriate legislation and robust autonomy.

Waymo may have covered an impressive mileage, but reports suggest that it is unable to drive on 99% of North America’s roads, because they are too complicated, and it has never been tested in the snow or heavy rain. The legislative aspects of self-driving cars are almost as complicated as the technology behind them, and governments have been slow to keep up with the pace of development.

It may not seem obvious, but there are significant ethical challenges associated with any autonomous system. Researchers at MIT have created a social experiment that demonstrates some of these ethical and moral decisions; head over to and you will be presented with a set of scenarios that a self-driving car might come across. Most of these scenarios have binary outcomes, and the big question is how does an autonomous car assign value to human lives: who should live and who should die?

Disrupting business models

From surgical instruments and reusable space vehicles to personal care providers and military platforms, robotic systems are highly pervasive and not just limited to the automotive sector.

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence and the adoption of robots across such diverse industries are also driving the fear of jobless growth. Responses to these developments have often focused on what to do to ensure that robots don’t steal the jobs of humans.

One idea is to use universal basic income – the idea that everyone receives a minimum income regardless of circumstance – to redress the impact of technological unemployment. Such arguments are usually unfounded; individual jobs are not created or lost because of a single technology, but because of the business models designed to leverage the power of that technology.

The year 1981 saw the prediction, at 12:01 AM on August 1st, that video would kill the radio star. Nearly 40 years later and another disruptive technology in the form of online streaming is also threatening to transform the music industry. These technologies have fundamentally changed the business models behind music production, but in doing so have enabled a new wave of artists to be heard around the world without the backing of big-name record labels. More music is produced now than at any other time in our history, what was predicted to cause mass radio unemployment has instead ushered in a new era of connected culture.

Educating future industry leaders

Here at the University of Bath we have two exciting new courses designed to produce innovators and disruptors in the era of robotics.

Our MSc in Robotics and Autonomous Systems is specifically targeted at post-graduate students with a background in engineering or science who want to position themselves at the forefront of robotics engineering. At the undergraduate level we have a new course, MEng Robotics Engineering. Both courses are led by our Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering.

Building on an academic legacy

The extensive facilities on offer at Bath enable our students to design, build and evaluate a wide range of real-world systems. Our current students have seen tremendous success in this area; 2017 saw the student-led Team Bath Drones and Team Bath Racing Electric reach the top of their respective competitive fields.

These student teams continue to achieve success thanks to their dedication, motivation, and passion for robotics and engineering, coupled with the support and encouragement of the Faculty of Engineering & Design.

As an academic within the Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, I am thrilled to have been involved with the design and teaching of these new courses. My own research explores the overlap of engineering and biology in the fields of bioelectronics and artificial intelligence. I lecture on several courses including Microprocessors, Structured Programming, and Computational Intelligence. However, these are just a handful of the building blocks that we need to design disruptive technologies. Our students are our most important resource, they will be the agents of their own future.

Posted in: New initiative, Staff insight

Find out about our MEng Robotics Engineering course