What is a robot and what can they do?

2024 has only just begun, but our TAS researchers are looking forward to getting out and about and meeting people…….so we are happy to announce that next week we are collaborating with the Festival of Tomorrow in Swindon. Come have a chat at the MacArthur Glen Designer outlet on Wednesday 14 or ask us questions as you try out a demo at the finale event at the Deanery secondary school on Friday 16 and Saturday 17.

We’ll be challenging your idea of what a robot is and what it can do, by showing you how a robot swarm navigates its environment, comparing your drone flying skills to machine learning, and exploring how soft grippers can be used to pick up fragile objects. At the finale, our researchers will also be featured in the panel ‘Here come the robots’ and you’ll be able to see entries in our ‘Design a robot’ competition, which we ran with Swindon school students.

AI has been all over the news this last year, and it’s no longer unusual to interact with an autonomous system in your everyday life- from Siri and Alexa, to driverless bus trials in Scotland, to shopping and movie recommendations. Our project brings together roboticists, engineers, computer scientists working alongside social scientists and philosophers to explore the implications for society of these systems, so that they’re designed and used responsibly. We would love to share our knowledge and enthusiasm about our work and get your feedback on it- and answer any burning question you have, including on careers.

We’ll be at the finale across both days, for more information and to book your tickets (most of which are free), please visit their website.   

How do you specify for an autonomous system to be trustworthy?

That is the question asked in our new research article “On Specifying for Trustworthiness”, published today in the Communications of the ACM journal. This article represents the collaborative thinking of multi-disciplinary researchers from across all six TAS nodes and hub, that emerged from a workshop held at the 2021 TAS All hands meeting. Their goal was to investigate this question, by considering how these systems operate differently within varying contexts, and to begin the journey of creating a roadmap towards top-down specifications for trustworthy autonomous systems. 

Autonomous systems are considered trustworthy when the design, engineering, and operation of these systems generates positive outcomes and mitigates potentially harmful outcomes. There are various techniques for demonstrating the trustworthiness of systems however, common to all techniques is the need to formulate specifications. A specification is a detailed formulation that provides “a definitive description of a system for the purpose of developing or validating the system” but writing them for autonomous systems to capture ‘trust’ is challenging. This is also compounded by the inherent uncertainty of the environment in which they operate. 

Framed around 10 intellectual challenges, the authors examined four different domains of autonomous  systems: when there’s a single autonomous agent (for example, automated driving, UAVs), when there’s a group of autonomous agents (for example, swarms), when there’s an autonomous agent assisting a human (for example, AI in healthcare, human–robot interaction) or when there is a group of autonomous agents collaborating with humans (for example, emergency situations, disaster relief). 

Please do watch our video below or read the paper here to find out more. We’re really pleased to be part of this important and timely research area, recognised by our acceptance into this journal which has an impact Factor of 22.7 in 2023.

All authors from University of Bristol are fully or part funded via the UKRI’s Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Node in Functionality under grant number EP/V026518/1.

Focus groups: have your say

We are looking for participants for online focus groups as part of our SWARM project, taking place in early 2024. We’re looking to get a range of perspectives about the future use of nanoswarms in cancer treatment. This project is investigating the ethics and regulations of their first in-human clinical trial. The aim is to explore how nanoswarm medicine should be regulated once this technology is available for clinical trials.

Would you like to participate?

Focus groups will be taking place in early 2024. We are looking for:

  • Oncology healthcare professionals
  • Cancer patients
  • Regulatory or policymakers in drug delivery/oncology
  • Nanomedicine researcher or developers
  • Other stakeholders including patient support and information groups, patient advisory committees, public health practitioners, professional associations for healthcare professionals, hospitals, cancer charities and family members/caregivers.

Volunteers must be over the age of 18 years old to take part. Please find more information on our website here, including a series of videos explaining the study and concepts associated with it, including “What is a nanonswarm?” below:

To take part in the focus groups please complete this Expression of Interest Form. If you have any questions please email swarm-study@bristol.ac.uk.

Are we creating a robot uprising? Shoppers tell us what they think of TAS

Our TAS team were so excited to be one of only four research projects selected to participate in Futures Festival at Cabot Circus shopping centre in Bristol on 16th September. Despite the rain, seven of our team, representing most of the aspects of project, spent a Saturday afternoon talking to many Bristolians and Bristol visitors about what TAS is trying to do, and their response to it. Visitors got to participate in some word clouds, have a go at robot-based activities and get involved in the conversation around the increased use of autonomous systems, AI and robots in our everyday lives. We were very pleased that so many people paused their shopping and other activities to come and chat with us, and we spoke to over 50 adults and children across the 4 hours.

We showed them our new project illustration:


We asked three questions that were displayed on a TV screen to engage visitors and to inspire interesting conversation: What word comes to mind when you hear “trust”?, What excites you the most about living in a world of autonomous systems? and What’s your biggest fear about living in a world of autonomous systems? After they had finished talking to us and having a go at the activities we also asked some of the visitors if they would trust a drone to deliver a secret letter and if they had learned anything from talking to us:


The children and teenage visitors especially liked the robotic activities: they could test the image identification software on a drone, try and paint a picture using a robot swarm, and move objects using a soft robot.

We had a great day and we’re really grateful to everyone who stopped on the day to talk to us. Thanks to the Futures team for arranging it. We’ll be at the Festival of Tomorrow in Swindon in February 2024 to show even more of the project- follow our page or on X (Twitter) to hear more.

Robots coming to a shopping centre near you….

Join us tomorrow (Saturday) for the Futures family fair at Cabot Circus shopping centre in Bristol. We’ll be there talking about TAS, and showcasing our work on soft, swarm and aerial robotics, as well as the social and ethical implications of autonomous systems. You can have a go at using a soft gripper to spell your name; find the picture in the swarm with our robot tiles, and see how our drone image identification system deals with bananas and corn on the cob. We want to hear what you think too- we’re better researchers when we talk about it with a wide variety of people. What does trust mean to you? What’s exciting about imagining a future of autonomous systems? What makes you nervous or afraid of it? We want to have that dialogue, and get feedback on this topical and novel area.

Find us in the main vestibule area on the ground floor near House of Fraser. We’re there from midday until 4pm, so don’t miss the team- there will be 5-7 of us throughout the afternoon, as well as other researchers from across the university, presenting their areas of expertise.

Clinicians and AI use: where is the professional guidance?

In a new paper published in BMJ’s Journal of Medical Ethics, the TAS functionality nodes’ Jonathan Ives, John Downer and Helen Smith explore the increased use of AI in healthcare and medical settings, and the lack of professional guidance around it.

Although AI has great potential to help improve medical care and alleviate the burden on healthcare workers, the authors argue that as there is no precedent for when AI or AI-influenced medical workers make a mistake, regulation should be developed as a priority to outline the rights and expectations of those working closely with it.

There have recently been reports from National Health Service AI Lab & Health Education England which focus on healthcare workers’ understanding and confidence in AI clinical decision support systems, and are concerned with developing trust in, and the trustworthiness of these systems. However while they offer guidance to aid developers and purchasers of such systems, they offer little specific guidance for the clinical users who will be required to use them in patient care.

The clinicians who will have to decide whether or not to enact an AI’s recommendations are subject to the requirements of their professional regulatory bodies in a way that AIs (or AI developers) are not. This means that clinicians carry responsibility for not only their own actions, but also the effect of the AI that they use to inform their practice.

The paper argues that clinical, professional and reputational safety will be risked if this deficit of professional guidance for clinicians, and that this should be introduced urgently alongside the existing training for clinical users.

The authors end with a call to action for clinical regulators: to unite to draft guidance for users of AI in clinical decision-making that helps manage clinical, professional and reputational risks.

More information

Read the full paper:


Read a blog about the paper on BMJ


All authors are fully or part funded via the UKRI’s Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Node in Functionality under grant number EP/V026518/1.

Helen Smith is additionally supported by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, University of Bristol via the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund.

Jonathan Ives is in part supported by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Bristol. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the National Institute for Health Research or the Department of Health and Social Care.


TAS community gathers for our first International Symposium

Over three days in July, just outside Edinburgh, researchers working on autonomous systems gathered for the first International Symposium on Trustworthy Autonomous Systems at Heriot-Watt University. Although the TAS project has been running for a few years, the pandemic prevented the TAS Hub and nodes from gathering the community to share their research into trustworthiness and autonomous systems. The talks and panels consisted of a diverse range of engineers, computer scientists and social scientists, including plenaries by Professors Sharon Strover and Gina Neff.


Our functionality node presented four posters and two papers, over the course of the conference. Dr Sabine Hauert didn’t let unreliable public transport prevent her from giving a talk on “Trustworthy Swarms”, a collaboration of researchers across our node. We also presented a scoping review, with work from Dr Helen Smith, Dr Jonathan Ives, and our previous colleague Dr Ariana Manzini, on “Ethics of trust/worthiness in Autonomous Systems”.


The first day of the conference focussed on early career researchers, and a number of Early Career Researcher awards were presented to them at the nearby National Robotarium, in categories including Policy and Knowledge Transfer. We were delighted that Dr Helen Smith won one of the awards for Responsible Research and Innovation, which included a £4,000 grant towards her research. We look forward to sharing where this leads.


After we’d been joined by our international colleagues, the nodes then had a further day at the All Hands Meeting, to share what we’d done over the previous 12 months. We heard from every node, plans for UKRI’s new Responsible AI initiative, and one of the panels involved Professor Dame Wendy Hall.

Thank you to the organisers and everyone who came along to make it such a useful, interesting and friendly event.

All images credited to photographer Ryan Warburton.

Who’s the expert? “Reverse think tank” examines just that….

Matimba Swana, our TAS PhD student, joined other early career researchers in a “reverse think tank” project last year, organised by the Public Engagement team at University of Bristol and co-led by Kilter Theatre. Designed to be a creative approach to the new emphasis on responsible innovation, as well as encouraging debate about what that means, the reverse think tank challenges the notion of the “expert”. Eleven 15-18 year olds gathered to learn about current research which they then used in a collaborative storytelling activity, based on a Disney strategy they employed to think of new ideas for films.

Although the researchers weren’t present, the young people saw videos of Matimba’s SWARM study research, to get an idea of where the research might lead. She is looking at the ethics and regulations of nanoswarms, a future nanotechnology that could be developed to treat cancer, to help shape the first in-person clinical studies. The young people were excited about the possibility of the technology being used but were concerned about negative consequences such as autonomy and unknown long-term effects. Their story involved a man named Ralph, living in Bristol, in his early 50s. He’s wondering whether to get nanoswarm treatment for cancer, asks for advice from his wife, who is very distrustful of the medical establishment, and is “anti-vaxx” and his friend Bob, who believes this is Ralph’s chance to be immortal. This also highlighted the possible inequalities that could arise from nanoswarm use, and the general distrust of medical advances.

Matimba found the think tank outcomes really useful and says “Something that resonated with me was we conduct research that impacts the future of young people and yet their voices are often not included in this area of research. Engaging young people as peer reviewers of my research has been enriching and a chance to understand their thoughts and feelings about the technologies we are investigating that could impact their future.”

You can read more about it here

If you’d like to participate in our SWARM study focus groups, please go here.

Researchers and industry try their hand at swarm and soft robotics

TAS Functionality Node invited developers, operators, end users and researchers to attend two masterclasses in April and May, taking place at Bristol Robotics Laboratory. Participants heard about the TAS Node project, its recent outputs and the test cases in swarm, soft and aerial robotics- and how these autonomous systems may be deployed in logistics, manufacturing and infrastructure industries. They then explored the capabilities of these technologies in soft and swarm robotics via an interactive ‘teaching and doing’ format. One participant Peta Masters, from King’s College, London thanked us for delivering “a terrific masterclass last Thursday and for showing us around the robotics lab, which I thought was just fabulous. What an exciting place to work. Really inspiring.”

In the swarm workshop the participants got to programme a swarm of robots and see their simulation enacted.

Participants were split into 3 teams, each responsible for programming one of the robots in the swarm. The objective was to get the robots to pick up a carrier without bumping into obstacles. Each team started by simulating programming their robot’s behaviour and testing it out through simulations. Then they got to transfer the code to the robots and see their algorithm plays out in real life.

In the soft robotics workshop, participants tried two different demos to show how easy it is to build a soft robot but how complex it is to control.

In the first demo, they built a soft continuous manipulator with a polythene roll they had to cut and hermetically seal. The manipulator was then inflated through a compressor, and participants had to figure out how to control it to bring down objects in specific positions without touching other things simultaneously. Due to their nature, soft robots have theoretically infinite degrees of freedom. The idea was to move it through cables, but the problems they had to solve were: Where are the best places to stick cables? How many cables do we need? In addition, cables needed to be guided along the structure; how much room do we have to leave between each guide? They experimented with how the behaviour of soft manipulators can change dramatically, only changing these aspects.

The second demo was about soft grippers and modularity. As we said before, soft robot control can be very complex, so if we divide the problem into smaller problems, would it be easier to control a soft robot? This is the thinking behind a modular soft gripper. Participants were asked to assemble a soft gripper joining together different pieces..

Lastly everyone learned more about cobotics (collaborative robots) by using the soft gripper they assembled with a traditional gripper mounted on the robotic arm UR10. In this collaborative simulation, one person had to operate the soft gripper, another the robotic arm, and another the hard gripper.

Thanks to everyone who came to try out our masterclass!

Robots unite! Somerset families swarm to play our robot game

How do natural swarms interact and how can we use that to our benefit in robotics? Visitors to the first ever Somerscience, which took place in Bruton on the May Day bank holiday, found out the answers to these questions and more and became robot swarms themselves in our special TAS swarm game. Neshika, Suet, Razanne, Fern and Matimba from our swarm team gave an insight into their research, whilst guiding the visitors of all ages to their spot on the leaderboard. In small teams the human ‘robots’ and their controller were asked to move all the boxes to the landing zone- and figure out the rules for moving the different types of boxes as they went along. The team also showed videos of the swarm robots and posters detailing their work. Later our very own Sabine took to the stage to answer questions for a special edition of I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here. By the end of the day we had a winning time of 1 minute 45 seconds– and our demonstrators really enjoyed talking to interested and enthusiastic members of the public. 

Thanks to all the organisers and visitors on the day- if you’d like a robot swarm to descend on your event, do get in touch.