When you think of a robot you may think: Terminator, RoboCop, even Sonny from iRobot. You probably don't think of Boris.

No, not that Boris. This is Boris 2, and he really is a robot, but he doesn't blow stuff up - he loads dishwashers.

"The scenario that we've got is to get the robot to load a dishwasher," said Professor Jeremy Wyatt, from the University of Birmingham's School of Computing Science. "That's not because I think that dishwasher-loading robots are an economic, social necessity right now. It's because it encapsulates an incredibly hard range of general manipulation tasks.

"Once you can crack that, once you can manipulate an object that you've never seen before, you can do a whole bunch of different things."

Boris performed in public for the first time in front of an audience of journalists at the British Science Festival.

Safely confined to a basement laboratory at the University of Birmingham, he reached out with a thick multi-jointed arm and picked up a measuring jug followed by a dustpan before depositing them in a tray.

Significantly, Boris figured out different ways to handle each object, either curling round his fingers to use the whole hand, or adopting a more delicate pinch-grip to grasp an edge.

What was going on in his "head" was represented graphically on a nearby screen.

The scientists start by teaching Boris basic ways of grasping an object - via physical manipulation - but then it is up to him to choose the best grip for the task in hand.

"You've got all the freedom of having all these fingers, so now your brain has got to work really hard," said Prof Wyatt. "The robot comes up with about 1,000 different grasps in its head in about 10 seconds."

Explaining the thinking behind the project, he said: "It is fairly commonplace to programme robots to pick up particular objects and move them around - factory production lines are a good example of this. But when those objects vary in size or shape, robots tend to get clumsy.

"The system we have developed allows the robot to assess the object and generate hundreds of different grasp options. That means the robot is able to make choices about the best grasp for the object it has been told to pick up, and it doesn't have to be re-trained each time the object changes."

This could have major applications in industry, for example. The team is working with a technology transfer partner in Coventry to develop a version of Boris that co-operates with humans on the factory floor.

A lot more work is needed before a new generation of Boris robots is sent into the real world, however.

The next big step for the scientists is to get Boris to use both his arms and transfer objects from one hand to another.