Will robots take over? New events to explore how AI will transform our lives

12 Jan 2017

January- March 2017 


The British Academy today launches a new series of events exploring how robotics and artificial intelligence could revolutionise society.

Advances in robotics and AI are changing how we do business, engage in warfare, and even have relationships. While some people welcome the rise of driverless cars, smart fridges and delivery drones, many worry about the ethics of machines taking on complex roles.

From January to March 2017, free events in London, Bristol and Leicester, organised in partnership with the Royal Society, will examine whether these fears are justified. What might a robotic future look like, and what does this tell us about what it means to be human?

Leading minds from the humanities and social sciences will be joined by experts and pioneers in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence to discuss questions such as:

  • Are we ready to have relationships with robots, as our care-givers or lovers?
  • Does artificial intelligence threaten society? Will the robots ever take over?
  • Will a robot steal my job? Or can we benefit from robots in the workplace?
  • Do we need new laws and guidelines to govern artificial intelligence?

Professor Patrick Haggard FBA, member of the British Academy’s Robotics, AI and Society steering group said:
“Humans have created and used machines since earliest times, but the autonomy and ability of these machines have recently increased dramatically. There is now a pressing need to understand how robotics and AI will shape our future, and to consider how we can use these developments for the greatest benefit of all.  The British Academy Debates will bring together different disciplines and groups to examine how robots, AI and society will interact in the 21st century.”

The British Academy Debates take place in London (31 January and 22 March), Leicester (21 February) and Bristol (1 March).

Other events in the series include an interactive late event which will investigate whether we are ready for romantic relationships with robots, featuring performances and short talks. The writers of hit Channel 4 show Humans will also be in conversation, discussing artificial intelligence and what they hope fans took away from the latest season.

All events are free to attend, although registration is required. You can see the full events programme at

Full listings below:

British Academy Debates:
Do we need robot law?
Tuesday 31 January, 18.30-20.00
The Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG
Advances in AI have enabled a range of developments in robotics, from driverless vehicles to unmanned military machines. These advances raise questions about autonomy and accountability - what happens if a faithful servant disobeys an action, and who is to blame if things go wrong? Can our current governance mechanisms lessen these risks and empower us to adopt new technologies? Or do we need new laws and guidelines?

Chair: Hannah Devlin, Science Correspondent, The Guardian
Speakers: Professor Susanne Beck, Professor for Criminal Law and Law Philosophy, University Hannover; Roger Bickerstaff, Partner, Bird & Bird; Professor Patrick Haggard FBA, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL; Professor Noel Sharkey, Emeritus Professor of AI and Robotics, University of Sheffield.
Free, please register online:
Organised in partnership with the Royal Society.

Are we ready for robot relationships?
Tuesday 21 February, 18.30-20.00
Hugh Aston Building, De Montfort University, Richmond Street, Leicester, LE2 7ED
Companion robots designed to interact, assist, and socialise with humans are a growing focus of the robotics industry. While some developers are looking to create innovative caregiving solutions to help ageing populations, others are delving into equally controversial territory - such as the creation of human-like sex robots. Can advanced technology really improve living standards or alleviate loneliness? Join our panel as they discuss the pros and cons of human-robot relationships.

Chair: Luke Dormehl, Journalist and author, Thinking Machines (WH Allen, 2016)
Speakers: Professor Margaret Boden FBA, Research Professor of Cognitive Science, University of Sussex; Dr John Danaher, Lecturer in Law, NUI Galway; Dr Nicole Dewandre, Philosopher, Joint Research Centre, European Commission; Dr Kathleen Richardson, Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics, De Montfort University Leicester.
Free, please register online: 
Organised in partnership with the Royal Society, with thanks to De Montfort University.

Does AI pose a threat to society?
Wednesday 1 March, 18.30-20.00
UWE Exhibition and Conference Centre, North Entrance, Frenchay Campus, Filton Road, Bristol, BS34 8QZ
The idea of a robotic takeover - a staple of Hollywood sci-fi - taps into the fear that machines will eventually surpass humans in general intelligence. Yet does artificial intelligence really pose a risk to society, especially when current technology is nowhere near those sci-fi scenarios and when AI offers many opportunities, in areas ranging from transportation to medicine? We ask whether recent developments in AI technology raise fresh concerns, if these fears are justified, and how they might be addressed.

Chair: Dr Claire Craig, Director of Policy, The Royal Society
Speakers: Professor Christian List FBA, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy, LSE; Professor Maja Pantic, Professor of Affective and Behavioural Computing, Imperial College London; Samantha Payne, CEO, Open Bionics; Professor Alan Winfield, Professor of Robot Ethics, Bristol Robotics Laboratory, UWE Bristol.
Free, please register online:
Organised in partnership with the Royal Society, with thanks to the University of the West of England.

Work less, play more: can humans benefit from robots in the workplace?
Wednesday 22 March, 18.30-20.00
The Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG
The Luddite uprising of the early 19th century pitted English textile workers against the machines taking their jobs. The machines won. If, as experts warn, large numbers of jobs are at risk of automation over the next twenty years, are we likely to encounter similar scenes of upheaval? Or are media reports of robots stealing our jobs misdirected? If machines can save us time and open up new types of roles, then surely, we should embrace the change?

Chair: Timandra Harkness, Journalist and author, Big Data: Does size matter? (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2016)
Speakers: Helen Dickinson, Chief Executive, British Retail Consortium; Dr Sabine Hauert, Lecturer in Robotics, University of Bristol; Daniel Susskind, Fellow in Economics, University of Oxford and co-author of The future of the professions: How technology will transform the work of human experts (OUP, 2015); Professor Judy Wajcman FBA, Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology, LSE and author Pressed for time: The acceleration of life in digital capitalism (Chicago, 2015).
Free, please register online:
Organised in partnership with the Royal Society.

Other events:
Love, sex, and marriage...with a robot?
Friday 3 February, 18.30-21.30
The British Academy, 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AH
Designers are producing robots that are increasingly human-like in appearance and actions. From sophisticated machines we can chat to, through to lifelike sex robots, these creations have the potential to change how humans date, have sex or fall in love. But do we really want - and need - artificial companionship? Join us for an evening of activities from talks to performances, as we explore the future of romantic relationships. Programme available from January 2017.
Suitable for over 18s.
Free, please register online:

Creating Humans
Monday 13 February, 18.30-19.45
The Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG
Writers of the hit TV series Humans, Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, discuss their writing partnership, artificial intelligence and what they hope fans take away from the most recent season.
This event will include live subtitling.
Free, please register online:

Editor’s notes:

  1. For further information, images, interviews with any of the participants or press seats at any of the events, please contact the Press Office on [email protected] or 020 7969 5263.
  2. The British Academy for the humanities and social sciences. Established by Royal Charter in 1902. Its purpose is to inspire and support high achievement in the humanities and social sciences throughout the UK and internationally, and to promote their public value. For more information, please visit
    Follow the British Academy on Twitter @britac_news.
  3. The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine. The Society’s fundamental purpose, as it has been since its foundation in 1660, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.
    The Society’s strategic priorities emphasise its commitment to the highest quality science, to curiosity-driven research, and to the development and use of science for the benefit of society. These priorities are:

1.       Promoting science and its benefits

2.       Recognising excellence in science

3.       Supporting outstanding science

4.       Providing scientific advice for policy

5.       Fostering international and global cooperation

6.       Education and public engagement

For further information please visit Follow the Royal Society on Twitter at or on Facebook at

Contact the press office

For further information contact the Press Office on [email protected]  / 07500 010 432.

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