Meet Boris the robot that could soon be working next to you

Alok Jha

Former Science Correspondent

Boris. Credit: ITV News

Reaching out to grasp an object is so straightforward that you probably don't think about it. Picking up an object you've never seen before might make you pause for a millisecond, but it's unlikely to cause much of a problem.

For Boris, though, picking up something he has never seen before is a huge achievement. He is a robot at the University of Birmingham who has been programmed to analyse an object placed in front of it and adjust its mechanical fingers to reach out, grab it and move the object around. This morning, scientists showed him off in public for the first time by getting him to load a dishwasher – a highly complex set of manoeuvre for a robot, it turns out.

The man behind Boris is roboticist Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham. He explained to me that Boris has been shown a range of different grips – a delicate pinch grip using first finger and thumb, for example, and a more powerful grip where he curls his fingers around an object – which he then adapts depening on the object placed in front of him. Boris has a Kinect movement sensor (from a Microsoft Xbox) to sense the object in front of him and then work out more than a thousand different ways to pick it up, all in just 10 seconds. He will then choose the most practical option and execute the motion to pick up the object.

Boris is part of the PacMan programme, a multi-university project across Europe to build robots for real-world settings – car factories, for example, or nuclear power plants.

Modern robots need to be told beforehand exactly how big an object is and what it looks like before they can manipulate things properly. As soon as you put them in unfamiliar situations, where they don't have a clear idea of what's around them, robots will struggle.

Robots in factories, for example, are programmed to move in exact motions on finely-tuned production lines. But Wyatt says that the technology in Boris could help build robots that are more intelligent in changing situations, allowing them to build cars from a pile of parts placed in front of them or helping engineers to build cars by hand.

Boris learning how to pick up a bowl he has never encountered before. Credit: ITV News

In the further future, intelligent robots could be sent into places where people cannot go – into the heart of a nuclear power plant that has broken down, for example, and which needs control valves to be turned off in places where there are dangerous levels of radiation.

All of those futuristic robots need much more work to realise – they need to recognise things, work out how they fit together, learn how best to move them without breaking them – but it all begins with machines that can simply pick up an object in the first place, in the way Boris can now.