Main content

The Great British Robot - too late and under-funded?

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton February 22, 2016
Great things are coming in the robotics revolution, but while Japanese innovation is on show, where's the Great British Robot?

UK's HMQ meets Japan's NAO

In my first report from the Japan-UK Robotics and AI Seminar, speakers from both countries set out their visions of technology excellence and societal impact. Some amazing work is being done: make no mistake, the robots are coming. But will any of them be British?

For this emerging economy to succeed in the UK, as the British government hopes, then establishing an atmosphere of trust will be of vital importance – something which the current government is not very good at doing. For example, its proposed surveillance programme has done little more than alienate the very technology providers on whom the burden and cost of a misguided policy will soon be dumped.

But some applications are no-brainers for the country, not least of which is the climbdown from being a world power. The UK will spend £2 billion every year for the next 100 years to clean up and process our nuclear waste – principally waste caused by the Cold War arms race, rather than nuclear power.

Currently, a man in a hazmat suit cuts up radioactive waste by hand with an angle grinder – a fantastically British solution to a massive environmental problem. He then has to be washed down by a team of other hazmat-suited men. Much of that clothing then has to be trashed, meaning that every barrel of nuclear waste generates 10 further barrels of radioactive material – including 10,000 pairs of gloves every day (that’s 365 million pairs of non-biodegradable, radioactive gloves over the next 100 years).

So, robots present an opportunity to save one industry alone up to £200 billion for a century, drastically cut the amount of hazardous waste it generates, and remove vulnerable human beings from harm’s way. Talented robotics engineers and academics, such as Dr Rustam Stolkin of the Robotics department at the University of Birmingham and Professor Robin Grimes at Imperial College, London, are working in this area, so you’d think that the UK government would be pouring money into robotics – if only to solve this problem.

But is it? Together, robotics and autonomous (or automated) systems (RAS, trust the UK to invent a pointless acronym) form one of the ‘eight great technologies’ identified by Whitehall to propel the UK towards future economic prosperity. The government is investing £200 million in the sector by 2020, explained Professor Grimes, who is Chief Scientific Adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Professor of Materials Physics at Imperial College.

According to Grimes, the hope is that the market for automated systems alone will be worth £191 billion to the local economy – a mere sprat to catch a mackerel in investment terms. Further opportunities abound in robotic software and systems to inspect and repair the UK’s ageing infrastructure, not to mention look after an ageing and potentially lonely population.

Impressive? Not when you consider that Whitehall spent between £456 billion and £1.16 trillion (the figures have fluctuated) on bailing out the UK’s banks. And not when compared with the host of last week’s robotics event: the Japanese government says it is investing ¥26 trillion (£161 billion) in robotics by 2020, with the aim of creating a “super-smart society”, according to Embassy spokeswoman Kanae Kurata. That’s real ambition backed by hard funding.

UK policy

We know that Japan is the epicentre of robotics innovation – certainly in humanoid robots, which have the status of pop culture icons in Japanese society. So where are the UK’s strengths, other than in abysmal levels of under-investment (in anything other than supporting a Financial Services sector that is little more than a super-massive black hole, around which the Exchequer spins likes a useless asteroid)?

Grimes explained that the UK majors in areas such as computer simulation and has complementary skills in sensors, software, data handling, and what he called “flexible legal environments”. More R&D partnerships are needed between the UK and Japan, he said, pointing to the relationships that already exist between Japanese corporations and British universities, such as Hitachi and Edinburgh, for example.

Dr Kedar Panya is Head of Engineering at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which makes him another of the UK’s key policymakers behind the national strategy for RAS (there’s that appalling acronym again). He said that the UK sees strong economic potential in wireless communications, robotic surgery, and assistive technology: all good things, supported by excellent domestic research.

Unmanned systems, manufacturing, and “mobile autonomy” – in the air, on land, underground, and at sea – are other key growth hotspots, he said. For example, Panya explained that there is a long-term plan for robots to replace diggers in Leeds and turn it into the world’s first self-repairing city. (Good luck with your PR and worker-relations in the city, Dr Panya!)

Leeds isn’t the only area to be interested in AI and robotics, however. Llewelyn Morgan, Services Manager for Localities, Policies, and Innovation at Oxfordshire County Council, explained how the authority is developing a transit strategy that embraces autonomous vehicles – making it the only council in the country (and possibly the world) to be doing so, he claimed.

Going underground

With Oxfordshire’s roads already at full capacity, and with “funding on a downward scale, and challenges on an upwards scale” thanks to Whitehall budget-slashing, Morgan set out how machine learning and AI combined “with an open, collaborative approach” are providing insights, predictive analytics, and early warnings of problems, which can be cross-checked with live sensor data.

Morgan made the startling claim that the combination of floating data, machine learning, and predictive analytics provides more accurate information than real-time sensor data – predictions that can then be tested against live feeds. This is genuine innovation being carried out by talented people on micro-budgets.

Medical applications are another research hotspot for robotics, of course – despite, or even because of, our love for the publicly owned NHS. If invasive surgery can be performed with microscopic precision by a robot, using tools that are the width of a human hair, then society will increasingly be forced to define in what ways a human surgeon might still perform better.

(The same applies to robotic care assistants in smart homes, which will enable elderly, sick, or vulnerable people to stay in their own home for much longer, reminding them to take medicine and keeping them company – according to a number of speakers at the event, at least.)

Prof. Guang-Zhong Yang, Director and co-founder of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College, explained how medical robots and ultra-precision medical procedures could “transform cancer surgery” and allow early intervention, using tools that are “like current surgical instruments, but smart”, in partnership with human surgeons.

And the applications don’t end there. It’s no giant leap of the imagination to suppose that with other technologies, such as machine learning, big data analytics, and 3D printing opening up new worlds of engineering precision and complex construction, other realms that have long defined human culture and endeavour, such as architecture, industrial design, and engineering, might become the preserve of robots too.

My take

Whether such innovations and developments might be good or bad for human society, creativity, cohesion, rights, and employment is an issue that I explored in my report yesterday.

As I explained in that article, the question is not if automation and robotics will spread into those areas of human endeavour that can be easily defined, but when – and how. Where the balance is struck, and whether intelligent machines will make humans redundant or simply enhance their human capabilities is down to the extent that policymakers have even considered these eventualities.

And it is also down to the levels of real-world investment in what the government already accepts is a key technology set for the UK’s future prosperity. So the fact that our investment levels are lamentable when set alongside those of our technology partner, Japan, is unfortunate.

When will the government learn that propping up one sector, Financial Services, to the exclusion of most others and to the tune of (by some estimates) £1 trillion does far more to ensure that human beings remain in economic enslavement than robotics ever will?

A grey colored placeholder image