Aye, robot

  • Big thinking
  • Technology & innovation

Deborah Mulhearn speaks to two experts to challenge perceptions about the role of robotics and AI in the future of work.

“We’ve started turning people into robots"

The word robot is a hundred years old this year. First used by Czech playwright Karel Čapek in 1920, it’s a word that now has such resonance that we all have an image of what robots look like and what they can or might do. They can be comical and ingenious and even beautiful, but mostly we perceive them as threats designed to scare or at least unsettle us. In films such as Ex Machina, for example, a humanoid robot attempts to join society, and in the short story Compassion Circuit by John Wyndham, a robot nurse takes commands a little too literally.

But these robots are the fictional fruits of vivid imaginations. In the real world, robots are not turning into people; it’s far more likely that the opposite is happening, and precisely because we don’t understand how robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) can benefit society.

“We’ve started turning people into robots,” says Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics, a worldwide not-for-profit organisation that encourages innovation and investment in AI, robots and robotic systems.

“We no longer give people jobs or careers. Capitalism is really failing the average person currently, so maybe we need new forms of shareholder-based capitalism, where people own more of their intellectual labour and data,” she suggests.

Fears about job losses are misplaced, says Keay, because it’s actually the other way round. “Our jobs are more at risk from globalisation and the gig economy than from robots. In fact, if your company is not investing in robots, then it’s likely to be going bankrupt. Manufacturing had 300,000 or more positions vacant (at the start of 2020) and predicts three million positions will be vacant by 2025. While the National Bureau of Economic Research looks at the overall number of factories versus the number of workers, they don’t highlight that it’s the highly automated factories, which have invested in robots, that stay open. The un-automated factories without investment in robots are the ones that are closing down – either to globalisation or competitive pressure from the increasing automation globally including in China. That’s the real problem,” she says. “Robots can only do tasks. They don’t take jobs. Robots are still completely unable to deal with tasks that require dexterity and mobility, or with complex situations, or anything that requires creativity or social skills.

Robots and Jobs[i], a 2017 paper by the economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, claimed that industrial automation was responsible for the loss of 670,000 jobs in the US since 1990,” she says. “But, as James Surowiecki reported in Wired[ii], trade with China was responsible for the loss of 2.4 million jobs – almost four times as many – between 1999 and 2011.”

In the world of work, real advances are being made. Robots and robotic systems now do work that is arduous, repetitive and dangerous, freeing people from unhealthy environments, monotonous soul-destroying work and allowing them to upskill, use their intelligence and improve their wellbeing. “There’s a whole new class of jobs opening up working with robots,” says Keay. “These range from programmers and robot builders, to writers and designers developing social interaction scenarios, to people picking robots up and plugging them in, finding lost robots and putting them in the right place.”

"A robot is best used when human labour doesn’t make the part qualitatively better"

Philippa Glover, managing director of CNC Robotics, agrees. “The risk we face is not a robot takeover of our workplaces, but that we have too few,” she says. And the UK is lagging behind. According to a poll by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), installation of industrial robots in Britain actually fell by 3% in 2018.

CNC Robotics, based in Bootle, Merseyside, specialises in advanced machining robotic systems, with worldwide demand for its skills across all industry sectors. “Robotic systems are becoming more accessible to all businesses,” says Glover. “But manufacturing has a serious problem in the UK in terms of productivity, and the resistance by some to digital technology means it’s only in 22nd place in the world in the number of robots deployed.”

Glover is at pains to stress that robots are nothing without people. “We are a technology provider, but we work collaboratively with people. We spend time understanding our clients’ business, and crucially, with the people on the shop floor.

“Tensions exist, and people will be concerned about future roles and responsibilities,” she adds. “But a robot is best used when human labour doesn’t make the part qualitatively better or where the task poses a significant risk to the employee. The inherent nature of robots means that they can work in hazardous, unsafe or extremely labour-intensive environments, so employees can be deployed to less risky operations within an organisation.”

For example, CNC Robotics designed and developed a robotic cell using a Kuka robot arm for Carbolite Gero, a Derbyshire-based company manufacturing industrial furnaces and ovens. This robot now cuts the vital insulation material, replacing a flatbed router with up to eight times faster cutting speeds. More importantly, the robot has helped eliminate the health and safety issues of the abrasive dust in the environment created during the cutting process.

Glover also cites the example of the Johnson & Johnson eyecare factory in Ireland, where fully automated lines ensure that the first person to touch your contact lenses is you, the wearer. “It can only be reassuring to think that there is no chance of contamination,” she says. “But people don’t see the advantages often or quickly enough. It’s a challenge that requires an internal cultural shift within the company. Best advice is to find the right partner and start small.

"We need robotics to solve many of our urgent global challenges. And we need more people building good robots."

The business support landscape is growing, especially for SMEs, says Glover, who sits on the advisory board of the government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF). This aims to invest in maths, digital and technical education with an additional £400m so that by 2030 the UK will be able to compete globally as a truly innovative economy.

“Fundamentally we have had a lack of focus on automation, beyond AI, in the ISCF, which is a missed opportunity but I do think things are starting to change,” she says. “The UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) community has the potential to increase economic output by 15%, or £218 billion, if we learn to work smarter.”

The availability of support from organisations such as LCR 4.0 Start, which supports the adoption of fourth industrial revolution (4.0) technologies for SMEs, has made the adoption of automation easier within the Liverpool City Region. Regionally, the Made Smarter North West Pilot offer grants of up to 50% funding for capital investment. CNC Robotics co-founder Madina Barker is also a member of the Making It Board.

“As a small company our priority is to instil new capabilities, and give a voice to SMEs,” says Glover. “What we want and need for our clients is that they are upskilled and become confident in robotics. This takes time, commitment and a willingness to learn as much as money. Investment is needed, but there is no point throwing money at it if you don’t consider what skills you need and how the business can adapt and develop.”

Another perception of robotics and AI is that younger workers can better grasp its potential and capabilities, or that it’s the preserve of Silicon Valley nerds and shiny happy (usually male) proselytisers. “One thing that is clear to me after a decade in Silicon Valley working with startups,” she adds, “is that startups are not vehicles for innovation. Startups deliver one single innovative product and are often the most conservative, reactionary environments for any other type of organisational innovation or diversity.

“The cult of youth is hugely overrated,” she adds. “Experience is essential when you’re working on anything complex. Robotics is the melting pot for at least five different disciplines, so your team needs to have picked up a wide range of experience and ability to communicate it.

Diversity of background and career is just as important as intellectual experience, she believes. “To create something that will truly improve the world, experience with problems is essential. Give me someone who was born on a farm, or worked in agriculture on the team of a food robotics company. Give me women from medicine on the team of a healthcare robotics company for pregnancy. We need robotics to solve many of our urgent global challenges. And we need more people building good robots.”

Fiction writers have great fun imagining problems robots cause because they lack emotions and human understanding. In the real world of AI and robotics technology, this is exactly what makes them useful.