Alan Winfield

Today I'm in Mallorca meeting about 20 other scientists to talk about evolving robots. To see what we're doing visit

Favourite Thing: Discussing new ideas, inventions and projects with my students and with other researchers around the world. I also love talking about science and engineering with – well – anyone!



Burton Grammar School (1967-74)


I did a BSc, then PhD in Electronic Engineering at Hull University from 1974-84.

Work History:

My first proper job was junior lecturer at Hull University in 1981. In 1984 I left Hull Uni to lead a start-up company called Advanced Processor Design (APD). In 1992 I left APD and moved to UWE, Bristol (although I still have a small part-time involvement in APD).


University of the West of England, Bristol

Current Job:

Professor of Electronic Engineering

Me and my work

I’m an engineer and roboticist. I do research in swarm robotics, and I write and lecture on wider robotics questions, including the value and impact of robots in science and society.

I research and build intelligent robots, especially swarms of robots that are designed to behave like social insects (such as ants). I use robots to do science, by building robots that are working models of (bits of) animals – I believe that if you can make a working model of something you can understand it better – and in my lab I’m using robots to help us to better understand animal intelligence, evolution and even human culture.

Here is a picture of the robots – called e-pucks – we use for swarm robotics research:


My current big projects are:

The emergence of artificial culture in robot societies. In this project we are trying to use robots to model the way that behaviours spread through a group, and change (evolve) as they are copied from one individual to another. We’d like to understand the detailed processes and mechanisms of how different ‘traditions’ emerge in robots and, ultimately, we hope this might teach us something about how traditions emerge in animals and perhaps even humans. Click on the title above to go to the project web pages.

Symbrion. This is a European project, led by the University of Stuttgart, in which we are trying to build a swarm of robots that can self-assemble into 3 dimensional artificial organisms. The idea is that the robots can work as a swarm – exploring and navigating their environment – but if they find a problem (like a wall a single robot can’t climb over) they will automatically self-assemble into something that can get over the obstacle. This project was inspired by the Replicators in Stargate! Here’s a YouTube video of me being interviewed about the project in 2008.

Intelligent Robots in Science and Society. In this project I have a mission to explore and explain the rapid advances in intelligent robotics, and the wider implications of those advances to society. I’m especially interested in the societal and ethical impact of intelligent robots and I’m part of a group – that includes people from the arts, humanities, law, ethics and social sciences – that is drafting a set of ethical rules for robotics.

You can find out about these, and other projects on my academic web pages:

and my blog:

My Typical Day

Most days are a mixture of spending time with my students in the lab; working on new project ideas and grant applications; reading and writing papers. And lots of email. A really great day is when I get to do a public talk or robot demo.

Every day is different (which is good) – but that makes it hard to describe a typical day.  Instead I’ll describe a typical week.  I’ll spend a chunk of time most weeks:

  • Working in the lab with my research team; I lead several different research projects so we will discuss the latest experiments, review and plan project work for the next few weeks and work together on new joint research papers. All of my project are collaborative with other universities, so we often have telephone or Skype project meetings, and about once every 3 months we’ll all get together in person.
  • Supervising my research students (I currently have 5 studying for PhDs). This involves helping them to progress through the different stages of their PhDs. For instance, at the beginning, it will be helping to define their research topic, then – in the 3rd year – helping them to structure their thesis, reading drafts, and preparing them for the examination (viva).
  • Working with other researchers on new research project ideas (often on Skype because they are in different countries), with the aim of jointly writing grant applications to get the money for new projects. I call this ‘grantology’. It’s very important because if I can’t win research grants then my research would, more or less, come to a stop.
  • Giving talks, public lectures or demonstrations. This is called public engagement and it’s something I really love doing. Sometimes I will give a talk for school students; sometimes a show-and-tell robot demonstration at a science centre or festival, or it could be a debate in a pub (called a science café).
  • Writing. Most of the time I have a big writing project – right now it’s an introduction to robotics and I set aside a chunk of time every week for this. I am also aiming to blog once a week about something new and interesting in robotics.
  • Reading. Like most academics I am expected to read and review other people’s research papers and grant applications. It’s called the peer review system. It can be very boring, but it’s important because peer review is how scientists check the quality of each other’s work.

What I'd do with the money

I would use the money to support a new community engagement project. These are projects that use very low cost high-tech gadgets to empower people do things like health or environmental monitoring for themselves.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Dad, Inventor, Worrier

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Kraftwerk: The Robots (I like loads of different kinds of music, so I just picked one!)

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I’m incredibly lucky because my everyday job is huge fun. But the most fun non-work thing in the last year was my 2010 summer holiday: going to Istanbul and back entirely by train. Ordinary trains, not the posh Orient Express.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

(1) To see my two sons reach their potential; (2) to build WALL-E for real; (3) to make a great TV documentary on engineering.

What did you want to be after you left school?

An electrical engineer – so I got my wish!

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yes, I made a shock box. It was a small box with a button and two metal contacts. If someone put their fingers on the metal contacts and pressed the button they got a small electric shock. I was sent to the headmaster for that:(

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Gosh that’s a hard question – I think it was (together with two colleagues) starting the robotics lab at UWE, from scratch, in 1993. It’s now called the Bristol Robotics lab and has around 50 researchers.

Tell us a joke.

Why did the robot turn into a ghost? Because he just couldn’t rust in peace.