A year ago today, I was standing on the surface of Mars, my shadow reaching out over the red sand to the rocks in the distance. My footprints mingled with the tracks of a Mars rover, which – incongruously – was now parked in a shabby lean-to garage. A Chinese-American professor in a floppy sunhat was gesticulating at me and a group of British scientists; she was explaining how the machine’s specially designed wheels helped it to climb over the rough terrain.
But I was pre-occupied with another thought. Here I was, finally standing on the red planet I’d dreamed of as a boy, only to find myself wearing a smart blue suit rather than a spacesuit and an astronaut helmet. It was much hotter than I had expected Mars to be on an early morning in March, and the sun was making me regret not wearing a t-shirt and chinos. I felt heavy; there was gravity.
Just a couple of hours later, I was sitting at the official centre of the universe, watching a video about space probes. There was aircon, so my colleagues and I appreciated the opportunity to relax somewhere dark and cool. Earlier, we had been surprised to find that you can get to the centre of the universe by bus from Los Angeles, a concept of which Stanley Kubrick might have been proud.
I should explain, Mars was not 140 million miles away; it was in Pasadena, California, in the mountains above LA – a backlot at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where NASA tests its nuclear-powered rovers. And the official centre of the universe – there was a plaque on the floor proclaiming it – was at JPL’s Mission Control centre, where the space agency manages the probes and robotic missions that now fan out across the solar system – and in the case of Voyager 1, far beyond.
My colleagues were some of the UK’s leading academics and entrepreneurs in robotics and artificial intelligence. We were on a secret mission – an Innovate UK Expert Mission, in fact – to put British ingenuity on the map for as many bright people in California and Texas as we could find. It seems so long ago...
We found a lot of bright people in LA, San Diego, and Houston: professors, innovators, astronauts, roboticists, CEOs, engineers, investors, earnest young men from technology accelerators, and an oil man in cowboy boots. It was an endlessly fascinating trip. We encountered an undersea transforming robot, a space robot or two, and even a billion-dollar autonomous plane that appeared to run on Windows 7 (I may be wrong about that).
In Houston, we had lunch with NASA’s head of robotics the day after the Space Agency received a call from on high ordering it to get ready, because America was heading back to the Moon by 2024. “We can make any President famous,” explained our genial host. “He only has to ask.” I don’t think he was joking.
For the first time, lunar missions would present opportunities for startups and private companies, he said – beyond NASA’s engineering partners, such as Jacobs. Lunar bases would be robot maintained and supplied, so perhaps the UK could create a new role for itself in this great adventure, 240,000 miles from home. Some of my colleagues certainly thought so.
Our own Mission was centred on Robotics and AI in Extreme Environments – such as space, subsea engineering, and nuclear energy – and I was privileged to write the subsequent report on behalf of Innovate UK and the Knowledge Transfer Network. It was published last summer – not including a chapter of recommendations that were for the government’s eyes only.
Life on Mars
So why do I mention all this now? Well, fast forward to 2020 and every one of us seems to be living on Mars – or at least on a semi-deserted planet, as rolling lockdowns empty our public spaces and force us to self-isolate in our homes. The Earth has temporarily become an extreme environment for humans, as coronavirus stalks our cities like a microbial Godzilla.
This made me wonder: could this be a moment to consider whether robots and AI are far less likely to kill us than biology, or than we are ourselves? I don’t mean to be flippant at a time of worry, loss, and suffering for millions of people. I’m making a serious point about our relationship with new technologies, which is so often based on fear in the tabloid media.
If robots can dive to the depths of the ocean to repair gas pipelines, fix satellites in near-Earth orbit, plunge into deep mines, monitor climate change, track plastics pollution, or help safely decommission nuclear power plants – all applications covered in the Expert Mission and my report – then they can also help people in other locations, in other places where it’s not safe or practical for us to go.
Robots and AI can help us survive in a huge range of conditions. After all, that’s precisely what many such systems are designed to do. And of course, AI is already helping scientists to find cures for a myriad of diseases, hopefully including COVID-19.
Robots can already run lights-out factories, manufacturing goods 24/7, 365 days a year. They can help run and maintain warehouses and keep orders moving. Robots can pick fruit, harvest crops, help irrigate fields, and – with the aid of drones and sensors – get fertiliser to where it needs to go.
All of these things are currently a problem for humans in a locked-down world. AI-infused vertical smart farms are already bringing crops into brownfield sites in cities, closer to the mouths that need feeding.
Robots can help deliver goods, medicines, and blood supplies on land, sea, and in the air – for example, in parts of Africa that would take too long for humans to reach by road. They can maintain essential services, carry out critical infrastructure maintenance, run oil platforms, assist surgeons in hospitals, connect vulnerable people, patrol the skies for extreme weather, and play key roles in disaster recovery or search and rescue operations. They are doing all of these things and more right now, it’s just that most people aren’t aware of it.
In the US last week, Forbes reported that fleets of driverless trucks are already helping to keep supply chains running, criss-crossing America with essential goods. There are numerous companies working in this space, including Alphabet subsidiary Waymo.
There are looming crises ahead. Last week – Week One of the UK’s own temporary lockdown – several farming organisations issued urgent appeals for seasonal help. Many fruit crops are due to be harvested in the weeks ahead, but a perfect storm of coronavirus and Brexit has left the country short of thousands of migrant and temporary workers. Even if restrictions are lifted, will enough of them come? Will they be able to travel?
On Sunday, The Observer newspaper reported that 90,000 jobs need to be filled, and large farms have been chartering planes to fly workers in from Eastern Europe – a strategy that may be delayed by lockdowns in the UK and across the continent. The challenge will be even greater for staple crops later in the year, meaning that the local food chain could begin to disintegrate. That would be very bad news – and would seem to suggest that the aims of Brexit run counter to the UK’s essential needs.
Farmers face other pressures too, such as the loss of EU subsidies. Coronavirus, recession, the lack of major trade deals, and potential divergence from European regulations may conspire to make the future security of food imports and exports uncertain at best.
But there is another challenge – an unnecessary one: very low levels of automation across every industrial sector, especially in areas such as manufacturing, healthcare, the supply chain, distribution, and, yes, agriculture. Countless robots and autonomous systems exist today that can plough fields and pick vegetables and fruit, but the UK, for example, has bought very few of them. It’s the same situation across many other industries.
According to International Federation of Robotics (IFR) statistics, the UK is nowhere near the top 20 in terms of its robot density (the number of robots per 10,000 human workers) and automation. We are behind most of our European allies, who have been driving productivity gains from these technologies much better than we have for several years. Software automation is also low, compared to other major economies, such as Japan, South Korea, China, the US, France, Germany, and Sweden.
Robots vs people?
Just to be clear, no one is suggesting that robots, AI, and other Industry 4.0 technologies should simply replace human beings across these industries – as though there is some finite list of tasks that must be given either to people or machines. The economy doesn’t work like that.
Indeed, all the evidence suggest that these technologies create far more human jobs and new business opportunities than they replace – the World Economic Forum published a detailed report on this in 2018, forecasting a net gain of 58 million jobs worldwide. Highly automated companies frequently employ more human workers, not fewer – take the US automotive sector – and often pay skilled engineers more.
At the moment human lives are being lost, not to machines but to a killer pandemic. Meanwhile, most people who work in the robotics and AI sectors share the same aims: to keep humans out of harm’s way, to let humans do what humans do best, and to automate repetitive or dangerous tasks, such as going where people cannot venture themselves.
At a time when many of us are unable to go into our own streets, towns, and communities because they have temporarily become hazardous environments, we might begin to see robotics, automation, and AI in a rather different light: not as our enemies in an apocalyptic tale spun by the media and filmmakers, but as our allies when we are at risk or unable to source enough labour.
It’s a simple question: would we rather watch crops fail on the vine or in the fields than have robots help farmers to pick them? Would we rather our factories and retail operations were closed than robots worked through the night, packing boxes, and loading goods onto trucks? It’s something to consider at least.
As we know, human last-mile delivery drivers are among the many people now recognised as providing essential services to people trapped in their homes, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. This is one area where proposed robotic solutions don’t pass muster, because they shift the onus onto the recipient. For example, they force vulnerable people in apartment blocks to leave their homes, go downstairs, and out into the street rather than have items delivered to their door.
Countless other human workers have proved to be more essential to our survival than those who, until the crisis hit, were paid and respected more in our dysfunctional society. Let’s hope that a fundamental change has occurred as a result of the lessons we’ve learned, and that we continue to value our essential workers as highly as we do now.
The point is this: automation, robotics, and AI aren’t – or shouldn’t be – about replacing those people or stealing their jobs. But it could be what keeps essential services running when we are unable to do it ourselves, or when humans are put at unnecessary risk to maintain them. It could be what stops essential crops from rotting in the fields, or helps human experts to do their jobs better, without running themselves into the ground with exhaustion or illness.
On the surface of Mars, Pasadena, in 2019, my job was to look for opportunities for UK innovators, academics, startups, and corporations in the multibillion-dollar extreme environments space, where the UK has genuinely world-leading expertise. I had no idea back then what was coming. None of us did. But perhaps there is a lesson there.