UK robotics start-ups using AI to solve pressing world problems show their ideas in Hong Kong

At the Great Festival of Innovation in Admiralty last month, inventors from two UK robotics firms revealed new ideas based on artificial intelligence that could help countries facing problems over food sustainability and ageing populations

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2018, 6:17pm

If everyone pictured a future centred on robotics, it is unlikely each one would look all rosy and optimistic.

“Robots are viewed as big and scary things that are either going to take your job or kill you,” jokes Ben Scott-Robinson, founder of The Small Robot Company. “What we want to do is completely opposite to that ethos; there is an opportunity for robots to make people’s lives better.”

The start-up is one of two robotics firms that attended Hong Kong’s Great Festival of Innovation last month. The other, Consequential Robotics, manufactures robots that promise to transform health-care services for the elderly and disabled.

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Scott-Robinson has a concept for futuristic farming that involves three artificially intelligent robots called Tom, Dick and Harry, whose job it is to take care of sowing seeds, monitoring plants’ health and tackling weeds.

“Robotics can completely change the farming industry,” the 44-year-old says. He explains that one of the main problems with farming is that ploughing with heavy tractors is energy-intensive and rinse the soil of its nutrients. The spraying of pesticides, meanwhile, is killing off pollinators and affecting biodiversity.

Tom, who would live on the farm full-time, is a monitoring robot. He roams the farm scanning crop-by-crop, checking plant health and looking out for weeds before uploading his findings to a cloud operating system. When plants aren’t looking healthy, Dick goes out to feed the ground at the root of the plant with nutrients and kill weeds with lasers. “You use 95 per cent less pesticide and none of it sits on the ground,” Scott-Robinson says.

Harry, meanwhile, uses a punch-planting technique that drops seeds into small holes in the ground and covers them with soil, eliminating the need for ploughs. Both Dick and Harry sit waiting for Tom’s call-out at “Small Robot Central”, Scott-Robinson’s vision for hubs distributed throughout agricultural areas.

You have an opportunity to allow farmers to move up the value chain
Ben Scott-Robinson

Scott-Robinson describes himself as a “digital innovator” and has a background in user experience for British mapping agency Ordnance Survey and a number of telecommunications firms. He says his interest in the environment stems from growing up in rural Norfolk in the UK. After years of developing and selling start-ups, he decided to turn his attention to agriculture. He began working with farmer and technology specialist Sam Watson Jones and roboticist Joe Allnutt.

“It was clear that the way farms were treating the land was massively detrimental,” he says. “The system wasn’t changing or being fixed.”

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By charging farmers a fixed amount per hectare, Scott-Robinson says his company “de-risks the environment”.

“It’s so they know what they’re getting into at the start and have no capital expenditure, so they don’t have to cough up hundreds of thousands at any point. They just pay as it happens … So we’re not delivering a machine or a service: our target is to deliver for that payment a healthy crop. It guarantees them a profit level and allows them to work around the finances.”

The team is currently focused on wheat, but plans to adapt its systems to incorporate other crops, including soya and rice. Currently in its prototyping phase, the company’s commercial trial is expected in October.

Consequential Robotics is also using AI robots to benefit others, focusing on helping elderly people and the disabled with its Miro “companion” robot.

Developed in the UK and manufactured in Shenzhen, the little robot – which looks like a cow, dog or kangaroo depending you who ask – is programmable, autonomous and biomimetic. This means it is designed to interact with humans like a pet, but has cameras for eyes and microphones in its rabbit-like ears that are designed to pick up on commands, or recognise when something is wrong.

“Our ultimate dream is for health care, elderly care and people with special needs,” says Isabella Barnes, the company’s 23-year-old design engineer who grew up in Hong Kong before going to study in the UK. “[We’re targeting] markets where having a companion would help reduce loneliness or depression, or just be a friend, when a real pet might not be appropriate – [such as] in small spaces, someone doesn’t have enough money, or there’s a risk of forgetting to feed it.”

Miro is designed to look ambiguous to both manage users’ expectations and meet the challenges of working with vulnerable people, Barnes says.

“It’s not a dog because it doesn’t respond like a dog … We drew inspiration from many cute, prey-like animals which have eyes on the side of their head. When you’re working with people on the autistic spectrum, being looked at in the eye can be disconcerting for them.” The company is also considering designing a version with more catlike ears for the Chinese market, Barnes says.

At the moment, a “limited quantity” of the robot is in production and the fully programmable Miro can be bought online for £2,200 (US$3,120). Ninety per cent of sales so far, Barnes says, have been to universities. “We’ve designed Miro as a developer platform for anyone with coding experience or learning to code to use as a flexible and versatile platform to practise,” she says.

Though the robot is not currently available for the health-care market, the team hopes that one day it will be used to care for the elderly and those with special needs.

There doesn’t need to be competition – it’s about humans and robots working in harmony together to better everyone’s lives
Isabella Barnes

Much of the scaremongering around humans coexisting with robots stems from the paranoia that machines are being built to take people’s jobs. But both companies would prefer to dream of their devices providing solutions to the global problems of ageing populations and food sustainability.

As well as giving farmers more control over their profit margins, Tom, Dick and Harry will also help free up their time to “diversify the rural economy”, as Scott-Robinson puts it.

“You have an opportunity to allow farmers to move up the value chain. Instead of them being focused on producing a commodity and having to go out at 4am and get wet, cold and miserable, they don’t have to worry about doing that: their commodity just happens,” he explains.

“That means they can turn the commodity into a product. Instead of getting £1,000 a hectare you’re getting £10,000 by producing bread or beer, for example. We need to think: bread, not wheat.”

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Barnes says that advancing technology needs to be balanced with practical realities. “There’s a line between making sure we have enough jobs in the future and using this technology and the skills people have at the moment to benefit the world as a whole,” she says.

Robots, for example, have been used for decades in the manufacture of cars to handle weights or temperatures no human could handle, she explains. “There doesn’t need to be competition – it’s about humans and robots working in harmony together to better everyone’s lives.”