Is government walking a red flag ahead of a robot revolution?

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton July 3, 2017
‘Popping a lid on encryption’? Comments from UK Robotics Week suggest that the British government’s attitude to technology needs an urgent overhaul.

When motor cars first appeared on British roads in the late 19th Century, the Locomotive Acts demanded they be accompanied by a pedestrian waving a red flag to warn passers by. Such heavy-handed regulations stalled the nascent British car industry for long enough for France to seize nearly 50 percent of the world market.

Fast-forward to 2017, and autonomous robots from Starship Robotics are being trialled on Britain’s streets by Tesco and delivery giant Hermes. The robots carry an LED flag and are accompanied by human walkers.

The similarity is striking. Of course, driverless vehicles pose real challenges in our crowded cities - does the technology work, is it safe, and who’s responsible if someone is killed or injured? But arguably, all history has achieved since the 1880s is to identify human beings, not machines, as the problem and kick them out of the driving seat.

The risk of regulating another new market out of existence remains in a country that has world-leading expertise in robotics, but a regulatory environment that’s in Brexit-induced meltdown. So is the UK cranking up the engine of its new economic vehicle, or is it walking slowly in front of it, waving a warning flag?

The question of how to keep Britain in the vanguard of robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) was the key topic on the final day of UK Robotics Week 2017. The 30 June London showcase launched several impressive white papers, and culminated in a series of keynote presentations.

Together, these painted a picture of a country that has the expertise, track record, and will to succeed in robotics and AI, and the agility to move quicker than its competitors – as it becomes an innovative SME rather than the offshore development wing of a lumbering multinational in the shape of Europe.

However, the big challenge for a go-it-alone UK is that RAS is an international, collaborative field. Within it, development is best achieved by sharing ideas across borders of every kind – at least, that was the message from the experts themselves in a room that was bursting with professors.

One day, someone may look back and realise that the Terminators could have been stopped on 30 June 2017, had Sarah Connor only been added to the delegates list.

Indeed, this is a problem in itself. The RAS community is overwhelmingly male and has a tendency to develop ideas with too little consideration of ethics, societal need, or real-world application. But several Robotics Week speakers recognised this risk and urged the community to put human beings front and centre of RAS research, as many are already doing.

One was Lucy Martin, new Head of Robotics at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which funds UK-RAS, the organisation behind Robotics Week. This clear-headed communicator is evidence of some fresh thinking and much-needed balance in the industry. She said:

There is a real need for us to take a leadership role in that and maximise the opportunities as they emerge. The statement that Prof. David Hogg [Leeds University] made earlier – ‘How do you make a great portfolio even better?’ – is the important thing here. We need to keep pushing ourselves, we need to work together, and we need to see what robotics can really do.

Show us the money

But why invest in robotics and AI when there are more pressing social concerns? The answer is, why invest in cars in the 19th Century?

The question then becomes whether the UK is investing enough in RAS to achieve its own ambitions? At the Japan-UK Robotics Seminar in London in February 2016, it was announced that the UK plans to invest £200-300 million in robotics and AI by 2020 – a pitiful amount for one of the UK’s ‘Eight Great Technologies’, especially when compared with Japan’s investment of £161 billion.

Someone who knows more than most about balancing politics with cash is Prof. Philip Bond of the Council for Science and Technology. He advises the Prime Minister and helped create the UK’s strategy for robotics and autonomous systems. Speaking at UK Robotics Week 2017, he said:

The way the Prime Minister’s Council works is both push and pull. I proposed we looked at robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence, and the confluence of these technologies, and ask a number of questions about the social and economic impacts, and about the place of research and the extent to which we were driving it into industry, in the broadest possible sense.

Part of that was my suggestion of creating the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund […] My original goal was to create that fund for the community sitting in front of me now.

Today, the £1 billion Challenge Fund is not only designed to support competitions and research in robotics and AI, but also across the other ‘Great Technologies’, including driverless vehicles, manufacturing and new materials, satellites and space technology, healthcare and medicines, and clean and flexible energy. That’s spreading the cash pretty thin.

Prof. Bond urged delegates to seek new ways to cross-pollinate ideas between these disciplines, and hinted that there is “come chance” that the Fund may rise to £2 billion.

That’s great news, but dig deeper into the small print and it’s clear that the billion-pound Fund equates to just £93 million in extra money for robotics and AI specifically, for which interested parties can apply. Even when added to the promised £200-300 million announced last year, it’s clear that the UK’s central investment in this critical technology for economic renewal is minuscule when set against Japan’s.

In fairness, this doesn’t include funding from Innovate UK, the body that works alongside the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which has invested £1.8 billion in UK innovation over ten years, according to the government’s own figures. At Robotics Week 2017, BEIS was urged to focus specifically on robotics research.

I asked Bond to explain the government’s odd attitude to the technology sector, not just the funding question, but also the increasingly adversarial stance UK Prime Minister Theresa May has taken in recent months around issues such as encryption and internet regulation. Doesn’t this send out a message that the government isn’t quite as open to new ideas as Bond makes out? Is it a case of waving a flag in front of yet another vehicle that should be going somewhere faster? Prof. Bond said:

This government is actually massively increasing its spending on R&D and technology, and as part of the Industrial Strategy it has really put technology very much centrefold [sic]. The government has understood that innovation in technology and the transfer of technology into society that we have are responsible for something like 50 percent of productivity gains.

There is now evidence that since 2002-2008, we are flatlining in productivity. We also know from the Bank of England that living standards are really strongly determined by productivity gains in the economy. So driving productivity is extremely important – driven by the way the R&D is impacting on society.

The digital economy is seven percent of gross UK value-add, it is adding jobs much faster than the rest of the economy – 2.8 fold higher. It’s an interesting piece of the economy, because many of the companies are very small and many are outside London. This gets past the problem of companies pretending that they are only functional if they have a large critical mass centred in a large city.

He went on:

But on the question of disruption and surveillance, one of the things that government has a central tenet is balancing security against privacy […] Their concern, which has been clearly enunciated, is that a lot of people who would seek to harm the UK are doing so using things like strong cryptography. And so the government is just saying, maybe there is a role for being able to pop the lid on some of that.

Might that be challenging, in that it mainly impacts on a lot of large companies? Yeah, I don’t doubt that there are issues around that. And as someone who has sat on the Royal Society Cybersecurity Review, we tend towards the view that strong cryptography is a good thing. But there is a whole debate about it. And I think that [what the government is saying about cryptography] is marginal in its economic impact, compared to everything else the government is doing.

My take

So there you have it. Prof. Bond is a strong advocate for new technologies and for driving new funds towards the UK’s many innovators and entrepreneurs; he should be congratulated for that. But the government really isn’t investing enough in these hotspots – it’s chicken feed – and certainly not enough to counter the threat to the tech sector overall from its other, much heavier-handed, policies.

Inadvertently, Bond has revealed the deep attitude problem at the heart of the British government. All of the UK’s RAS expertise that developers and academics genuinely believe will assist human beings, complement their skills, and enhance society are – in the government’s view – only useful for improving productivity after years of austerity, because bankers have told them so.

But this is also the big problem within RAS itself. The academics, researchers, and tech providers are idealists, and they’re clear about one thing - it’s not about man vs. machine, it’s about human plus assistive technology.

But most customers don’t see it that way: for them, the technologies are a shortcut to massive cost reductions – see the Reform report on using robots and AI to remove 250,000 public sector workers, for example. It’s a national tragedy.

This, more than any other reason, is why robots will take your jobs - not because the innovators want them to, but because the bean counters demand it.

And as for strong encryption? Good luck. Perhaps it’s time to break out the flags after all, and walk slowly in front of government for a change.