cubed Pepper the robot butler © Vincent Desailly ©


The Internet of Things is here. We talk to experts at Queen Mary University on what it is, where it is heading, and robot butlers.

‘The Internet of Things’, IOT for short, is one of the new buzz-phrases among technologists, futurists and product designers.  But what does it mean? Professor Peter McOwan, Professor of Computer Science & VP for Public Engagement and Student Enterprise at Queen Mary, University of London, has an original take on this which he presented at the British Science Festival. The talk is called ‘When Fridges Attack’. Professor McOwan explains, ‘basically it is part of the maths section which is going to talk about the Internet of Things, in particular what is going to happen when you start to combine lots of different sorts of devices which will be able to join with one another, communicate with one another.’  So what will happen when your fridge is able to have a conversation with your phone and your oven, for example.

Queen Mary already has a BSc (Eng.) in the Internet of Things, a joint programme run in conjunction with Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. This joint educational venture has several advantages, such as blending the scientific and mathematical heritage of both cultures. Dr Stefan Poslad and Dr Michael Chai who work on this successful course, cite the example that the city of Wuxi, two hours’ drive from Beijing, has one of the largest networks of sensors installed – sensors are key to the Internet of Things, they register what is happening in an environment. If you are in a UK university and want to test out an idea quickly, ‘it is easier to get the system operational [in China] much quicker,’ they argue.  One reason being that when ‘cities are expanding in China, it is almost like a clean slate approach, they can add in all of these things from the ground up. In the UK we have all this infrastructure, and it is harder to make changes.’

The Internet of Things plus Artificial Intelligence 

Professor McOwan’s talk ‘When Fridges Attack’, extends the issue into the area of Artificial Intelligence, exploring what happens when these objects that are sensitive to environments become socially aware. At the British Science Festival, Professor McOwan’s talk is on a European research project he was co-ordinating called LIREC (Living with Robots and Interactive Companions). 

The project looked at robot use in different scenarios. One was an educational scenario around chess play in Portugal, another at the University of Hertfordshire was called Robot House where researchers are housed in a real housing estate, populated by some robots, all interacting together. ‘The final one at Heriot Watt University, Scotland,’ explains Professor McOwan, has a system around helping in the office. The scenario they had there was migration where you have an Artificial Intelligence with some knowledge of previous interactions and rules about what you want.’

Migrating Intelligence

This entity he explains, can be in a robotic body but may also migrate to a mobile device, the AI entity learning how to function without wheels or a ‘grabber’. Then it can migrate back to a robot body when necessary. So for example Professor McOwan speculates, an ‘AI entity would be able to move and look in your fridge and be able to take a message to you that you are low on milk. Or suggest it might be a good idea if we make macaroni cheese for a few evenings.  The same entity would be available in multiple forms, able to be in a robot one day and the next day migrate into a location aware mobile device to help manage your affairs as you move around.  In the future you may be able to have that sort of social interaction with an Internet of Things, where the things get to know you, this sort of appropriately designed social technology could be used in lots of areas from education to health care and assisted living.’

Professor McOwan is concerned, as people already have ‘strong views about genetically modified foods and fracking, they are controversial areas, but people aren’t aware of the impact that AI is making.’ We may need new laws to take account of this new world.  ‘The law frequently lags behind technology, in part because the science changes so quickly but also because we try and build our laws on previous legal principles and this can sometimes prove difficult to reconcile with our new digital realities’.

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