(Top photo: an ASIMO robot. Photo: Flickr user Adam, via)
A couple of weeks ago, during the government budget, Philip Hammond announced that £270 million would be committed towards "disruptive technologies" – namely robotics and AI.
This announcement came after years of slow progress in the UK robotics industry. In 2013, the government labelled "robotics and artificial intelligence" as one of the eight "great technologies" in which the UK could be an international leader. But the enthusiasm seemed to end there, as last year a select committee found there was no clear government strategy "for developing the skills and securing the investment that is needed to create future growth in robotics and AI".
But the story seems to have changed with Hammond's announcement, and today a report by consultancy firm PwC found that more than 10 million workers in the UK are at high risk of being replaced by machines within the next 15 years. Still, some experts have been quick to point out that Hammond's £270 million isn't all that much in context. The budget allocation spans everything from complex artificial intelligence to driverless cars and biotech, as well as industrial robotics. Considering the US spent over $1 billion on AI alone last year, the UK's figure doesn't seem particularly promising.
Mike Wilson is chairman of the British Automation & Robot Association, and works for ABB Robotics, where he runs courses that seek to show businesses the benefits of embracing automation. He tells me his area often loses out on government funding to other advanced technologies: "Most of the efforts and money that has been put into robotics has been largely aimed at the future robot technologies – things like driverless cars and healthcare," he says. "To date, they've not put a lot of attention on industrial robots; the robots that are used for manufacturing."
And why's that? "We are dealing with politicians; politicians have to be aware of perceptions. Unfortunately there has been a lot of coverage in the popular press that robots will replace more than 30 percent of jobs in the UK," says Wilson, before arguing that this bleak picture painted by the tabloids isn't necessarily true.
"The problem with that is when people are talking about this, they are actually talking about things like white collar jobs, not manufacturing jobs, so they're not talking about jobs that robots are currently doing anyway," he says, adding that he believes no dirty, toxic or mundane jobs should be done by humans, and generally, that this is the direction developed societies are heading in.
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Guy Michaels, an economics Professor at LSE, is one of the only people to have studied the impact of the process of automation on the economy in the UK. He believes that at any given time in the process of automation, some jobs will be displaced and some people will lose out; however, the overall benefits of automation outweigh the job losses, he says.
"What we see is that industrial robots seem to increase productivity, they seem to increase wages and also reduce output prices," he explains. "So there are ultimately benefits for both workers and consumers." Increased global competitiveness also results in an automated company growing much faster, and therefore creating more jobs in the country – so even though some traditional jobs may be lost, this will theoretically be balanced out by a surge of new jobs, according to Michaels.
However, Michaels stressed that more research needs to be done into industrial robotics' relationship with economics and society: "In order to build a consensus on what is happening and what will happen, it would be necessary to have more data and evidence – our study and its conclusions are based on the narrow picture we have so far."
"Big companies are worried about the complexities of things going wrong, and going to court in unexplored territory if it did"
Regardless of the tangible effects of automation on society and the economy, most developed countries are marching way ahead of the UK in this field. According to the latest statistics from the International Federation of Robotics, the UK only has 71 robots to 10,000 manufacturing employees. In Europe, countries such as Germany and Sweden boast 301 and 157 robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees, respectively.
However, Asia is the continent truly leading the way. Up top is South Korea, with 347 robots per 10,000 employees, and shortly behind is Japan with 339. Last month a report by the Financial Times detailed the flurry of government initiatives and subsidies being dished out to companies in China. The International Federation of Robotics predicts that by 2019 China will account for 40 percent of the worldwide marketplace for industrial robots, from only 12 percent in 2010.
According to Mike Wilson, one of the main reasons UK businesses are struggling to reach similar heights is because they see robotics as "over-complicated, expensive and risky". However, as time goes on, robotics technology is getting much better, much cheaper and much safer. The complex and relatively unsafe manufacturing robots of the past are slowly being pushed out for slicker and more efficient technology. Previously, the already-expensive robots required multiple costly safety measures, such as walls around them to keep workers safe. But the new generation of "cobots" work alongside humans, and are much safer and less demanding; these are the focus of modern automation.
A group of researchers and engineers from the agricultural university Harper Adams are trying to prove that the technology to automate is readily available and affordable, at least in agriculture. Together with Precision Decisions Ltd, they are trying to build a fully automated crop farm in Newport, Wales – the first of its kind in the world. They kicked off their final phase of testing the "Hands Free Hectare" last week.
"We aim to plant our first crop of spring barley at the end of this month, and then will be planning our agrochemicals throughout the growing season, and then harvest around September time," Martin Abell, an engineer on the team, tells me. "We are confident this project will set a precedent for automation. We believe that the implementation of automation has been slow because it's a matter of mass legislation. Big companies are worried about the complexities of things going wrong, and going to court in unexplored territory if it did" – which is why, going forward, smaller initiatives like this are more likely to be on the cutting edge of technology.
Martin sees change coming, and says it's also being propelled forward by other robotics tech: "It's all changing because of the driver-less cars; they are being focused on and pioneered, and eventually clear legislation regarding automation will come."
So when will the UK have a fully automated workforce? The answer is: not anytime soon. Mike Wilson says that the UK was only touching the tip of the iceberg, and this was evident through his work. So far, the seminars provided by ABB have only trained a few hundred businesses, when there are over 130,000 manufacturing businesses in the UK.
When looking at the rest of the world, this isn't a figure to be proud of. The Boston Consulting Group recently conducted a survey that predicted that currently robots are performing about 10 percent of the tasks in manufacturing worldwide. By 2025 it will be 25 percent and productivity will be increased by a massive 30 percent. If the rest of the world is following this pattern, and the UK falls behind even more, we could be putting our manufacturing sector and economy at risk.