The mainstream media have done a good job of creating a negative, often hysterical narrative around robots, automation, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems - one informed by a century of sci-fi dystopias. If you believe the reports, robots are coming for your jobs, your life, and the planet. Look, there's one doing a somersault! Cue videos of sinister robot dogs or the android inhabitants of Uncanny Valley.
While these fears are understandable to a degree, it isn't a narrative that solves any problems or moves the UK closer to creating a modern, competitive, productive economy that could benefit everyone. It also ignores the new ventures and jobs that advanced technologies are creating, not to mention the question of why some engineering and design challenges are being addressed in the first place (to make machines easier for humans to collaborate with).
Balancing opportunity with risks
Prior to the pandemic, a 2018 World Economic Forum report predicted that while there would be significant job losses in some industries and in routine-based, admin, or middle-management roles, there would be a net gain of 58 million jobs from Industry 4.0 systems.
These would come via new opportunities, services, and products, and from a resulting increase in productivity and a lowering of process costs. Even in some highly automated industries, said the WEF, skilled human jobs and wages might increase - predictions borne out in the US automotive sector, for example.
But a lot has changed since 2018 - such as a microbial Godzilla stalking the planet. So where are we now?
First, it must be acknowledged that there are outstanding concerns in some areas of what has become known as Industry 4.0. These include ensuring that everyone has the right transferable skills to thrive in a world of more automated services - which is no mean task; the risk of automating societal biases and giving them a veneer of computer-evidenced validity; and the ethical quagmire of machines or algorithms being given too much power over people's lives with too little accurate data, or without a human in the loop. But beyond that, the mainstream media narrative is largely uninformed, Terminator-obsessed scaremongering.
The pandemic has revealed that many industries and aspects of our lives, such as disaster recovery, critical infrastructure maintenance, energy, manufacturing, agriculture, health and social care, research, retail, transport, logistics, and the supply chain, would be more resilient if they could keep functioning when humans are unable to work safely themselves, or we cannot rely on seasonal labour. Robots can augment critical functions and automate low-value-adding activities.
Even prior to the pandemic, this realization was central to the government's Robots for a Safer World challenge, which took place under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. In a sense, our entire world has become an extreme environment in 2020-21, which is where robotics and AI can add real social and economic value. In other words, in extreme or hazardous environments, robots can rush in where humans fear to tread.
RAI21's three-day week of bots
At least, that's the message of the summer of robotics events that kicked off this month in the UK, with the three-day Robotics and AI Showcase 2021 (RAI21). The event brought together panellists and exhibitors from over 60 organisations this week.
While the Showcase has covered a broad range of applications, a key focus has been on robotics, AI, and autonomous systems for extreme environments, an important hotspot for UK innovators via the country's four university-based research hubs.
Conference topics and showcases have included: robots for safer nuclear operations and decommissioning (areas covered by the RAIN Hub and the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics, NCNR); robotic systems for offshore energy (a key focus for Scotland's ORCA Hub); and robots for space applications, such as satellite maintenance and deep space exploration (both addressed by the FAIR-SPACE Hub at Surrey University). Other extreme environments include deep mining, natural disasters, and subsea engineering.
But that's not all. Technologies that have broader, ‘cross-cutting' applications are of greatest interest to investors and policymakers, as they stand the biggest chance of gaining an economic foothold. Such technologies might include robotic hands and grippers, computer vision, and systems that enable remote operator control, telepresence, telexistence, and/or robotic autonomy.
Autonomous machines - source of the greatest fear among technology sceptics - are often necessary where real-time human control is impossible, due to communication lags or difficulties. A good example of this is the Mars rovers, where a communications delay of (say) 14 minutes means that robots need to be able to fulfil human-set mission objectives independently. Even on Earth, direct human control problems are not unknown: salt water is a barrier to radio waves, so autonomy is a development focus in subsea robotics too.
Overall, the message has been that robots can help humans to create a more resilient future and assist in a range of different fields. The event has been hosted by networking organisation KTN, in partnership with UK-RAS (the dedicated organisation within the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), UKRI/Innovate UK, the National Robotics Network (NRN), the UK Business Angels Association (UKBAA), robotics marketplace Bot-Hive, and specialist investors Elite - evidence that some public/private alliances work.
"A science superpower"
Opening RAI21, Science Minister Amanda Holloway said that patient capital will be crucial to fulfilling the UK's ambitions in this field. She explained:
New technologies are fundamentally changing the way we live and work, with robotics and AI playing a major part. The role of technology and innovation is critical to the UK as we recover from the pandemic, as well as to our long-term growth and productivity.
The Spending Review set out the government's plan to enable the UK to become a science superpower, and we continue to make good progress in implementing the R&D roadmap, having introduced legislation to establish the Advanced Research and Invention Agency [ARIA, announced in February 2021], a new funding body focused on high-risk, high-reward research.
In addition, we published a Catapult review, which examines how the Catapults could strengthen R&D capability in local areas and improve productivity and prosperity across the United Kingdom.
The government is also committed to publishing its new Innovation Strategy, she said, adding:
Innovation in robotics has been critical to boosting our industrial productivity in the past. Increasingly capable, cheap, safe, and reliable robotics are set to play an important role across society and the economy, whether that's helping to meet our Net Zero ambitions or building economic resilience.
Chairing the opening session of day one, David Bisset, Director of robotics and autonomous systems consultancy iTechnic, welcomed the forthcoming publication of the Innovation Strategy - whenever that may be. He said that the robotics community is committed to achieving the UK's target of 2.4% of GDP being ploughed into R&D. The UK has certainly lagged behind its industrial competitors for too long in this regard.
We have seen much closer links being forged between industry, government, and research, most visibly in the successful operation of the Robotics Growth Partnership [RGP]. […] I urge you to see how it is making a real difference to the visibility of robotics within government and within UKRI, but also within the closely related areas of AI and digital twins.
This triangle between government, industry, and research is essential to leveraging and understanding the economic impact from robotics and AI, which is far greater than the market for the technologies themselves, so their importance to the economy is considerable.
This was an interesting point, and underlines that - ultimately - the focus on robots in isolation is a red herring. The critical issue is the useful services they could provide to human society and business, and the new activities that these might unlock.
Understanding and illustrating this wider impact helps to secure investment in our innovation base. For example, by justifying the creation of infrastructure that supports the translation of our research expertise into real-world products and services, through programmes such as the ISCF Robots for a Safer World challenge.
For many years, it felt - at least from my perspective - that robots only impacted in niche areas. But in the last couple of years, we've seen interest in robots from end-user industries, particularly in the service sector, become far more tangible, bringing fresh investment, and providing new use cases to explore.
Perhaps it is because of the need to develop a low-touch economy over the last year or so, or the need to increase remote operation. But I think it's mainly because end-users are seeing that robots can bring real gains in productivity, and the utilization of resources.
Increased interest from different sectors is also based on the improved range of tasks that can be undertaken by machines, often in collaboration with human beings, he said.
I'm not talking about manufacturing, where the benefits are well understood - after all, robots are an important reason why car manufacturing still takes place in the UK. I'm talking about robots being seen as a critical part of the maintenance or service of infrastructure, on wind farms, in food production, and in healthcare and construction.
These are the growth areas of the coming decade. And the UK is well placed to develop and grow these markets to its advantage.
‘Cobots' on the shop floor
But robots in these markets don't work in isolation, Bisset explained; increasingly, they will use AI to plan, interpret, and optimize their tasks, interact with us, interpret our commands, and report back on progress - ideally in terms that we can understand.
This is part of the ‘cobot' (collaborative robot) concept: adaptable, programmable platforms that can work intuitively alongside human workers in a variety of industrial settings, rather than dumb, single-task machines in safety cages. But the virtual, data-based world is important too, he explained.
More recently, we've seen added into this mix a greater use of digital twins. These are becoming a key tool in the successful deployment of complex, large-scale robotics installations in warehouses, in hospitals, and in our transport systems.
The confluence of these three key technologies, robotics, AI, and digital twins, will drive great progress in the next decade or so. It gives us the potential to optimize the interfaces of complex systems, where there is high demand and there are dynamic constraints.
But challenges remain, he acknowledged. One is the paradox that AI can already beat grandmasters at chess, but robots still lack the dexterity and physical intelligence of even a three-year-old child. Another is establishing the standards and modularity that would allow automated supply chains to scale across multiple sectors.
And there are also numerous challenges in deployment, he explained.
One challenge is to understand the return on investment and the disruptive impact, and how to manage it on existing processes and systems when we deploy these advanced technologies.
And finally, there's the challenge of skills, the challenge to ensure that services and industry users employ people with robotics, AI, and digital twins skill sets - people who, at one level, can work to optimize the application of these technologies, and at another, can work with smart machines and autonomous systems to achieve greater productivity and competitiveness.
To achieve these goals, we will need dependable and trustworthy robotics and AI. But here, we may face increased regulation. As a result, the industry needs to counter the prevailing media narratives and engage in more persuasive and honest conversations about the risks and rewards.
The good news is that the UK's summer of robotics doesn't end with the Showcase this week. In June, the UK Festival of Robotics takes place, a week-long series of events and activities that replaces the well-known UK Robotics Week, which had run successfully for five years before the pandemic hit.