Last updated on September 25th, 2017 at 05:41 pm

New Scientist Live 'Engineering Inspired by Star Wars' Q&A

New Scientist Live returns next week (28th September – 1st October) for its second year, bringing with it a whole host of thought-provoking talks and immersive displays exploring all aspects of science and the future of technology.

One such exhibition at this year’s event is the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Engineering Inspired by Star Wars’. Inspired by the droids of Star Wars, we spoke to the Royal Academy of Engineering to discuss the latest advances in robotics, how haptic technology gives us new ways to interact with computers, and what the future hold for humans and artificial intelligence.

What can visitors expect from your ‘Engineering Inspired by Star Wars’ exhibition at the New Scientist Live?

At our stand, Engineering inspired by Star Wars, you can see a Luke Skywalker-inspired robotic arm which users can control with their thoughts using the latest EMG sensors. Try out a helmet fitted with ultrasonic direction sensors that will send a signal to your left or right ear depending on where the interference is, rather like feeling the Force. You’ll be able to feel invisible shapes in a ‘haptic challenge’ enabled by ultrasound and try your hand at small-scale levitation to explore a technology that one day could make large objects float freely. You’ll also be able to experience the Star Wars Universe through immersive virtual reality.

Can you explain what haptic technology is to dummies like us?

Sriram Subramanian is Professor of Informatics at the University of Sussex and co-Founder of Ultrahaptics –
“Haptics refers to the ability to create a sensation of touching an object in an interactive scenario. In the past we would have received haptic feedback from our keyboard (when typing) or from the car dashboard when pushing buttons and turning dials on the dashboard. But today our keyboard on a smartphone and our car dashboard is a flat piece of glass. We cannot feel the edges of a button or feel when we move from one button to another. The only way we can be sure that we’ve selected the right button is by looking to get visual confirmation.”

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What are the everyday uses we can expect as the technology progresses?

Professor Subramanian; “As our ability to track and gesture at objects is growing, we are increasingly relying on our visual senses to perform interactions with technology. More specifically we forget how important the sense of touch is to help us navigate the increasingly complex world of technology. With haptics we are looking for ways to recreate this sense of touch without losing the convenience that gestures offer. With our technology one can expect to receive a VR experience not just in the visual world but also through touch. The sense of touch need not be purely functional (like touching a button or a light switch) but it could be affective (like comforting a baby). We are specifically looking at how to recreate this emotional engagement with technology through the sense of touch.”

What role does the Royal Academy of Engineering play in that progress?

Professor Subramanian; “The Royal Academy of Engineering has been an excellent ambassador for our innovative research, inviting us in 2013 to be part of the Christmas lectures, awarding us the Colin Campbell Mitchell award and generally helping us to transition the idea from a research prototype to an economically viable commercial activity.”

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How realistic are the droids in Star Wars? Are we close to producing similar intelligence?

Dr Matthew Dickinson, Course Leader for MEng/BEng Computer Aided Engineering at the University of Central Lancashire –
“Great question, at the moment we can build droids to commit to jobs like R2-D2, we can enable the machine to know where it is and to complete tasks, which can in some cases be very complicated, including standard production line working. But when it comes to decisions making, robots can struggle. The holy grail of AI research is a truly sentient being that can interact with the world. C-3PO is interesting because he displays emotion and concern when he is operating. When it comes to droids like those in Star Wars, we have only scratched the surface towards reaching a sentient level.”

Do we need to be careful with AI and robotics? Is there a genuine potential for danger?

Machine learning and AI are areas of research that likely to be among the most important software developments of the next decade, but like all new developments there is potentially an element of risk that needs to be managed. Some traditional jobs may be displaced by autonomous systems, while in other jobs, autonomous systems could enhance human engagement and create new employment and leisure time opportunities. However, new robotics and AI technologies have the potential to increase productivity, providing companies with a competitive edge and allowing them to grow. Furthermore these technologies will help to solve some of challenges facing us such as climate change and population growth. For example, artificial intelligence will allow us to anticipate and respond to adverse weather conditions, changing water levels, energy needs and use, terrorist plots, waste management and human safety in specific situations. The computer could have been seen as a replacement for human activity and a threat to employment when it was introduced, yet it has created whole new industries such as the successful gaming industry in the UK. Notwithstanding, the profound, and very fast-moving, change that is occurring that will require continued open debate.

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‘A New Hope’ or ‘The Empire Strikes Back’?

Dr Matt Dickinson; “It’s got to be The Empire Strikes Back when Luke Skywalker fights Darth Vader for the first time, and the immortal words “Luke… I am your Father.” During the fight Luke had his hand cut off and afterwards he was given a bionic hand – as a little boy I loved robots so this was awesome!”

New Scientist Live runs for 4 days at ExCeL London from Thursday 28th September – Sunday 1st October. Head over to the New Scientist Live Website now where ticket prices range from £26 for a standard adult day ticket to £78 for a four-day pass, with concessions and group tickets available. Use the code ‘JOES10’ for 10% discount!

This post has been kindly sponsored by New Scientist Live.

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