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The Rise of the Machines: Building a Robotic Future


Robots have had a mixed reputation in the media. One minute they're being hailed as the answer to a safe, automated society and next they're stealing our jobs and threatening to take over the world. Well at least that's what we're being led to believe with a near-constant stream of articles, reports and news highlighting the imminent robotic revolution. These robots represent systems that can understand human behaviour and make decisions and their prevalence in our world is increasing. IDC has estimated that worldwide spending on robotics and related services will more than double by 2020, growing from $91.5 billion in 2016 to more than $188 billion in 2020.

Robotics is now an integral part of our society and in the next few years these machines will will become much better at making decisions on our behalf, in more complex scenarios. And this will become the catalyst for mass adoption and the saturation of robotics into many of our industries.

But how much of this rhetoric is actually true? Are robots something to be feared, or embraced? In this paper we outline the key areas to watch when it comes to the future of robotics.

Identifying New Market Opportunities in Robotics

Over the next 10 years' robotics will have an increasing impact on our lives, both at home and at work. Advances in technology and decreasing costs mean that it's now possible to add a degree of automation to almost any device. A number of industries are leading the way when it comes to realising the promise of robotics, enjoying the efficiency and savings, that come with automation:

  • The first area where we've seen astonishing progress in the last few years is drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) which have seen a massive growth in their manufacture, sale, use and potential application. The opportunity for drones to impact numerous industries is huge from live broadcast of sporting events, use by the emergency services, the military, delivery services, film making and surveillance.
  • Sensors is another area of robotics that is opening up a world of possibilities for advancing medicine and healthcare - from technologies to replace lost vision, hearing and advanced prosthetics to a contact lens, being developed by Google, that can sense body temperature and glucose levels to help patients manage their diabetes.
  • The world of automotive transport is also undergoing a robotic revolution. We've all seen the hype about the emergence of autonomous or driverless cars. Jeff Klei, president of Continental AG's North American region, predicts that as many as 54 million autonomous vehicles will be on the road by 2035 and a number of big brands have made significant early inroads into the development of autonomous vehicles, including Google, Tesla and Uber, whose "driverless cars" were tested in California in 2016.

The long-term benefits and advantages that connected cars offer us are great, from traffic management to safety. There are also several long term economic and environmental benefits associated with reduced cars on our roads, if we see the predicted shift away from personal car ownership.

  • Robotics has a positive role to play in manufacturing and the supply chain, helping to automate production lines, boosting production volumes, bringing better quality assurance and reducing both the cost involved and the time taken to create products.
  • Robots also have many fields of application in agriculture and are being readily accepted into an industry which for centuries has been exploiting new technologies and relying on machines to work smarter and faster. In the not-too-distant future, many predict that entire crop cycles could be managed autonomously with fields, sown, tended and harvested by robotic fleets, capable of working longer hours than a human ever could. In Japan, the world's first entirely automated lettuce farm is due to launch this year.

Wherever these pioneering industries lead we're sure to see many others follow and whole new applications develop. A European Parliamentary report has even stated that robotics has the ‘potential for virtually unbounded prosperity'. Although automation will bring challenges, it's important to acknowledge its potential to bring huge benefits to a range of industries, because progress won't be made until automation is accepted as an inevitable part of our future and we start to consider the possibilities and not the risks.

Don't Forget the Humans

Despite the advantages of robotics, the automation of industry is raising concerns that robotics may result in many of the jobs done by humans being taken over by robots, putting the future of employment in jeopardy. In a recent report, the World Economic Forum predicted that robotic automation will result in the net loss of more than 5 million jobs across 15 developed nations by 2020. Analyst house Forrester has also reported that by 2021, robots will have eliminated 6% of all jobs in the US, starting with customer service representatives, followed by lorry drivers and taxi drivers.

However, since the industrial revolution humans have been adapting to new technologies - first steam, followed by electricity and then computers.

It's true that automation will have a profound affect on the types of jobs that are available in the future, but robotics is likely to result in a shift in skill set rather than net mass unemployment. It's also likely that robotics will result in many new positions for high and low-skilled works, such as roles maintaining the robots.

As MIT technology review observes, since at least the 1980s, computers have increasingly taken over tasks such as bookkeeping, clerical work, and repetitive production jobs in manufacturing, all of which typically provided middle-class pay. At the same time, higher-paying jobs requiring creativity and problem-solving skills, often aided by computers, have proliferated. The same can be said for low-skill jobs; demand has increased for restaurant workers, cleaners and other service jobs that are nearly impossible to automate.

The Realisation of Industry 4.0

Much of the concern around job losses has so far been centred around industrial robots rendering humans obsolete. Industrial robots are now so much more than just a robotic arm and as we enter industry 4.0 we'll see computers and automation come together in an entirely new way, with robotics connected remotely to computer systems equipped with machine learning algorithms that can learn and control the robotics with very little input from human operators.

Industry 4.0 centres around the smart factory where robotic systems monitor the physical processes and have the ability to make decisions. Although industrial robotics has been around in some form since the 1960, the huge advances in micro-processing means that we've seen an explosion of industrial robots worldwide, bringing improved quality, safety and cost savings to the production line with real-life case studies starting to emerge. The Changing Precision Technology Company factory in central Guangdong, China has claimed that replacing humans with robots has helped to boost productivity and quality. By using automated machining equipment and autonomous transport tracks, the factory has managed to reduce its staff form 650 employees to just 60. It reported a 162.5% increase in production, and a reduced defect rate of under 5% from 25% In contrast, luxury car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz recently declared that robots cannot provide the same flexibility and dexterity offered by human workers, as these machines cannot keep pace with the degree of customisations in its manufacturing process.

Leslie Willcocks, professor of technology, work and globalisation at the London School of Economics and Political Science's Department of Management also states that jobs likely to be replaced with robots are “high volume, highly repetitive and not suited to humans”. His research predicts that most workplaces in the future will not be fully-automated environments devoid of humans, but rather feature teams of humans and robots working together with assigned tasks they are ideally suited for.

However this new industrial landscape will require a new approach to engineering to realise its potential.

Building a Robotic Future

The proliferation of robots will require new thinking and a shift in education to help the next generation of engineers take advantage of this rapidly growing and lucrative industry. This means moving away from traditional ways of teaching engineers and learning to merge what has historically been two very separate disciplines of electronic and mechanical engineering. Being specialised is not going to cut it in a robotic world which relies both on the physical and the computational elements of engineering. This is similar to the shift experienced around 10 years ago when software and hardware engineering stopped being taught separately and instead adopted the banner electronics engineering.

It isn't just degree level education which requires a re-think, we also need to see a shift in thinking from the very earliest foundations of education. In 2014 the UK took the first step on this journey by adding computing to the national curriculum from the age of five. We've also made progress with tools and programmes designed to inspire the next generation of engineers, such as innovations like QuadBot, a robotics platform accessible to beginners and experts, which fosters skills in coding, 3D printing, design, electronics and robot maths.

However, many people are questioning whether this is enough. Figures from the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) released in June 2017 reveal that despite computing education in UK schools going through a massive revolution over the past few years, there's only been a small rise in students taking the new computer science GCSE. A survey from EngineeringUK has also highlighted a worrying skills gap. The report says that between 2012 and 2022, UK engineering companies will need to recruit 2.56 million people; of these, 257,000 will be to fill new vacancies rather than replacing people.

What's clear is that rather than making computing a subject which sits on the periphery of the school timetable it needs to be championed as the fourth literacy alongside reading, writing and arithmetic to ensure the UK keeps pace with the new industrial revolution.

According research by Dmitry Grishin, head of Grishin Robotics, the world's largest venture capital fund devoted solely to robots, the future of robotics is being driven by the growing popularity of low-cost electronics such as the Raspberry PI and open source Arduino board.

The advent of low-cost computing is helping to open up robotics to a far wider audience and revitalise the home-robotics movement, with hobbyists being able to build their own autonomous devices for a fraction of the price. The market is now awash with innovative connectors and sensors that support the building of robots.

But the success of the hobbyist market and the power to inspire the engineers of tomorrow will depend on the ecosystem that supports it. Not only do you need the right connectors and components, you need the tools, inspiration and resources that guide engineers through prototype, design and production to ensure the market for robotics delivers on the expectation of it becoming an $188 billion industry by 2020.

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