Connected through the cloud, as part of an intelligent swarm, in homes and on the streets, robots are about to break into our daily lives. In this issue of Horizon, we talk to the scientists who are putting Europe at the forefront of robotics research.
That includes Dr Markus Waibel, who is turning low-cost robots into highly intelligent devices by connecting them to remote data centres, and Professor Maurice-Xavier François, who is developing technology to enable robots to carry out missions deep into interstellar space.
We sent a camera crew to France to meet Rob Knight, an engineer who has made a robot that can move just like a human. Professor Maarja Kruusmaa from Estonia explains how underwater robots can navigate the seabed using sonar.
Professor Bruno Siciliano, at the University of Naples Federico II, explains that robots can make Europe more competitive, creating jobs. We also speak to Professor František Štĕpánek, from the Czech Republic, where the word ‘robot’ was first used. He is making microscopic robots to deliver cancer drugs directly to a tumour.
A robust, adaptable robot that responds to its environment on the fly and overcomes obstacles such as a broken leg without human intervention could be used to rescue people from an earthquake zone or clean up sites that are too hazardous for humans.
People’s interactions with machines, from robots that throw tantrums when they lose a colour-matching game against a human opponent to the bionic limbs that could give us extra abilities, are not just revealing more about how our brains are wired – they are also altering them.
From about 245 to 66 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Although well-preserved skeletons give us a good idea of what they looked like, the way their limbs worked remains a bigger mystery. But computer simulations may soon provide a realistic glimpse into how some species moved and inform work in fields such as robotics, prosthetics and architecture.
Should we have special laws to govern robots? The question isn’t being debated in parliaments and newspaper columns yet, but robots currently under development are becoming so astute at learning to interact like humans that it’s only a matter of time.
Antibiotics which break down before bacteria can evolve resistance to them; perfumes which release the heady scent of freshly cut flowers as your body heats up; and powerful cancer drugs directed to exactly where they are needed are some of the potential applications of microscopic chemical robots under development in Europe.
Professor Bruno Siciliano specialises in control and robotics at the University of Naples Federico II and is a past president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Robotics and Automation Society. He believes that robots can make Europe more competitive, creating jobs.
Fifty years after humans first set foot on the moon, Earth’s only permanent natural satellite is back in the news with China’s successful landing on the moon’s as-yet-unexplored far side. This month, Horizon looks at how Europe is contributing to moon research. We hear from the European Space Agency’s director of human and robotic exploration about their plans to send a robot and then humans to the lunar surface in the 2020s, and speak to the scientists trying to fill the holes in our understanding of how the moon was formed. We also hear how we could solve the puzzle of where water on Earth originated by analysing volatile substances from the moon, and take a look at the methods and facilities being developed to protect precious extra-terrestrial samples from human contamination.
The languages we speak and how we speak them are an integral part of our identity, shaping not only how we see the world but also how people see us. In January, Horizon puts language under the spotlight, kicking off the month with a look at Europe’s minority languages and how to preserve them. We also delve into the social and cognitive aspects of language use, finding out how accents arise and how they affect people’s perception of the speaker, and discovering how ageing affects linguistic capacity in bilingual people – and vice versa. We also speak to researchers looking into the language impairment dyslexia and potential options for early diagnosis.
A study in mice has indicated that the make-up of bacteria in the gut is linked with learning abilities and memory, providing a potential avenue of research into how to maintain cognitive functioning as we age.
Scientists are investigating the link between gut bacteria and ageing.
Their ageing rates might teach us how to grow old gracefully, too.
We are entering a second era of lunar exploration, says ESA’s Dr David Parker.