Introduction


So many of the tasks that we now take for granted once had to be done manually. Washing a load of laundry no longer takes all day; our phone calls are directed to the correct departments by automated recordings; and many of our online orders are now selected and packed by robots.

Developments in this area are accelerating at an incredible rate. But as exciting as these new discoveries may be, they raise question after question around whether the research needed to deliver such innovations is viable, both from an economical and an ethical point of view. 

As expert manufacturers of engineering parts that help to keep hundreds of different automated processes up and running, electronic repair specialists Neutronic Technologies are understandably very interested in where the future is going to take us. Is it going to take hundreds, if not thousands, of years for us to reach the kinds of automations that are lodged in the imaginations of sci-fi enthusiasts? Or are we a great deal closer to a machine takeover than we think?


 A brief history of robotics and automation

It may come as a big surprise, but history shows that the first instance of robotics and automation dates back as far as 3000 BC to the Egyptians; where water clocks used human-like figures to strike bells on the hour. Jump ahead to 1495 AD and Leonardo da Vinci drew out plans for his idea of a humanoid robot.

Skip forwards a few hundred years, and we get to where we are now. At the moment, robotics are typically used to complete the most repetitive actions, or even jobs that are considered too dangerous for humans. This can include building cars and electronics, bomb disposal or disarming, underwater exploration in deep caverns, and even certain elements of surgery. 

 

In 2000, car manufacturer Honda debuted its robot ASIMO; the robot vacuum Roomba entered our homes; and giant corporations such as Google are now exploring the concept of self-driving cars.

Smaller-scale automation is also starting to appear more commonly in our everyday lives, even in places that you might not be aware of it. And this is a trend that is spreading across the world.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, there are five countries in the developed world that manufacture at least 70% of our entire robotics supply: Germany, the United States, South Korea, China and Japan.

By 2018, the Federation of Robotics predicts that there will be approximately 1.3 million industrial robots working in factories around the world. That’s less than two years away.

The development of automation has received a great deal more attention over the past few years. And undoubtedly what has brought it to people’s attention is the popularisation of the subject following the explosion of science fiction books and movies such as Isaac Asimov’s ‘i, Robot’ and ‘The Bicentennial Man’. And this has continued to emerge throughout the decades, and has likely only heightened our curiosity about the world of robots.


 Why are we even exploring robotics?

If there’s one thing that history has taught us, it is that the concept of robotics and automation is not a new one; it’s something that we have always been intrigued by. The film industry has only served to cultivate our aspirations. Star Wars. Robocop. Blade Runner. I, Robot. A.I Artificial Intelligence. The Terminator. These movies have graced the big and small screens for decades now, and they are becoming more and more popular. There is little doubt that they serve as both inspiration and motivation for those who wish to see more machines in reality.

Aside from good old-fashioned human curiosity, which has undoubtedly been the driving factor behind so many of the world’s greatest discoveries, have we simply just reached a point where human-like machines are just what comes next? Emulating our actions through machines could simply be another step forward in exploration. Just in the same way that we aspired to cross the seas and travel into space.

“Developing robotics is the next stage in our search for automation,” said Neil Gallant, Managing Director of Neutronic Technologies. “We already have automation integrated into so many aspects of our daily lives, from doors that open due to motion sensors, to assembly lines and automobile production, robotics is simply the next step along that path.

“I predict that the biggest developments in the automation world will come from the automobile industry – so the likes of self-driving cars that are already being tested – and the internet.”

Neil’s thoughts are shared across the industry, and there are those who predict that our borderline obsession with automation and striving for independent robotics is only going to increase in the very near future.

“Automation is becoming ubiquitous across most industries,” said Dik Vos, CEO of SQS. In manufacturing for example, global sales of industrial robots are expected to almost double in volume by 2018, reaching 400,000 units, and revenue from the home automation segment is expected to hit over $6 million this year. Yet, one of the biggest areas we have seen grow with automation at its heart, is in the automotive industry.

“Plans to test autonomous lorries in the UK may have recently been stalled, but trials of self-driving vehicles are already in place in other countries, including the US. 2017 may see the start of autonomous cars hitting our roads, and these vehicles will continue to change the world’s roads for the foreseeable future.”

Another area of development within automation is likely to come from the growth of the internet. The concept of the ‘Internet of Things’ has been gaining momentum for some years now, even decades amongst technology companies, but the idea has only recently started to break into mainstream conversation.

The Internet of Things refers to devices, applications, and objects being connected via the internet. They can communicate with us, and one another, in order to operate independently. A common example is that our phones can be connected to our homes so, if we are on our way home, we could use an application to tell our central heating to turn on, or our ovens, or the fridge could automatically recognise when certain items are running low. 

We have already seen glimpses of the future starting to creep into reality, most notably with the introduction of Amazon Dash. Linked to the person’s account and programmed to a certain item, all you have to do is press the button and an order is placed and delivered. Of course, this process is currently only half automated; a button still has to be manually pressed and Amazon shippers still post and deliver the item, but it certainly shows the direction in which we are headed. 

But ultimately the Internet of Things can go even further than creating smart homes. The term ‘smart cities’ has been coined that could theoretically include connected traffic lights to control vehicle flow, smart bins that inform the right people when they need to be emptied, to even the monitoring of crops growing in fields.


How do we reach these automation goals?

Ultimately, the end goal of any research into robotics or automation is to emulate the actions of humans. People across the world engage in heated debates about whether machines will ever have the ability to think like people - a subject known as A.I. or Artificial Intelligence which is worthy of its own exploration. Whether that will become a reality in the future we cannot currently tell for sure, but researchers are hard at work across the world trying to inch our way closer.

There are, of course, issues that arise when we try to develop machines to take over certain tasks from humans, most notably to do with quality control and the increased margin for error. Some question whether a machine, that doesn’t necessarily have the capacity to consider extenuating circumstances or raise certain questions, or react in a particular way, would be able to perform these tasks.

Let’s look at self-driving cars for example. So much of driving depends on the person behind the wheel being able to react in seconds to any changes around them. It is therefore essential that machines are able to “think” as close to humans as possible. If artificial intelligence and technology alone cannot achieve this, it would be very difficult for such vehicles to become road legal. However, experts in the industry have suggested a very clever solution…

Dik Vos strongly believes that automation cannot succeed unless it is combined with strong elements of humanity:

“As the appetite for fully autonomous, self-drive vehicles increases, it is looking ever more likely that the central computers we often see running automated cars in science fiction films will become a reality. If this is the case, automated vehicles could be the safest on the road if they were to tap into a collective driving experience.

“Imagine every experience from every driver in the UK being uploaded into one database and used to drive the autonomous cars of the future. Collectively it would have millions of years’ experience.”

A process such as this one, to assemble all possible scenarios and the correct actions to take, will be a hugely time-consuming and costly task, but ultimately it would be worth it to ensure the safety of those inside the vehicle and out.


Are there any disadvantages to the research?

As with any major development, there are always going to be people who oppose it, or at the very least point out reasons why we should proceed with caution – and with good reason.

One of the biggest, and indeed most realistic, fears that many people express, is all to do with economics and jobs. It’s no secret that the UK’s economy, and indeed the world’s economy, has been somewhat shaky over the past few years. This has led to many people showing concern that the development of automated processes, which are able to perform certain tasks with precision and accuracy that surpasses humans and at a much faster speed, will mean that many people’s jobs will become redundant. 

“Predictions like these bring fears that technological advances will leave a trail of unemployment in their wake,” said Martyn Ingram, Managing Director of Morgan Marine. “I know the Chief Economist of the Bank of England said very recently that up to half of the jobs in the UK, not only in manufacturing but also clerical roles, administration, accountancy and sales could be wiped out by robots within the next 20 years.”

 Dik Vos has also voiced his concerns for the worldwide job market, particularly in the automotive sectors, both on the production side and being behind the wheel:

“In recent years we have made technological advancements we once never thought possible including connected cars, artificial intelligence (AI) and 3D printing. These advancements (amongst others) are set to simplify the way we live and work in the very near future, however they also bring some issues.

“For example, autonomous vehicles are threatening the livelihoods of low-skilled workers throughout the world. Yet these people want and need to work. With machines starting to take jobs from humans, we will be sure to see an increased emphasis placed on the retaining of up to 30% of our working population into other low-skilled positions and roles including manufacturing and manual labour.”

In January 2016, Deloitte analysed data from the Office for National Statistics and combined it with data that stemmed from their work with Oxford University in 2014. And their findings were extraordinary.

Their analysis showed that 35% of jobs in the UK have a high chance of becoming automated in the future. Their research examined 14 years’ worth of job losses, and given the rate at which discoveries are taking place, their predictions could take even less time to come true. 

Deloitte went even further with their research; delving into individual industries to discover how they would be affected by the world’s growing interest in robotics and automation.

 

Angus Knowles-Cutler, Vice Chairman of Deloitte, commented on the company’s findings:

“Advances in technology mean that an ever greater number of tasks in the workplace can be automated. Computers and robots are replacing human labour where it is easier and cheaper for them to be used. Our study looks at what technology is likely to be capable of, rather than the ease or relative cost of automation. As the cost of technology reduces or the price of human labour increases, the pace of automation of jobs is likely to accelerate.

“The pattern of job automation by UK industry is quite diverse. Sectors where many tasks are manual, clerical, administrative and repetitive are much more vulnerable than those where creative, technical or strong interpersonal skills are required.

“The recent history of the UK economy gives us reason for optimism. Technology has created far more jobs than it has destroyed since 2001, with new roles tending to pay better than those that have been replaced and be safer from the risk of future automation. Also, the effective use of technology will be critical in keeping the country successful and productive in a competitive world.

“What will be key is for business, public sector, government and educators to understand fully both the threats and opportunities presented by technology. There is a real need to work together to ensure that both young people, and the current UK workforce, are equipped with the education and skills needed in a new world of work.”

When these figures are taken at face value, particularly those detailing the changes that are predicted for specific industries, it can be hard not to imagine a science fiction-esque dystopian future where all humans are out of work and the world is overrun by machines.

A second issue that was touched on earlier in this report is that of safety if automated machines are trusted to take over many jobs that humans do, most notably those involving quality control or where lives could be at risk, such as driving on the roads.

Whilst it may be the goal of some companies to remove human interference from certain processes altogether, this isn’t necessarily the wisest option. This isn’t just for the economic reasons that have been flagged above, although these should most definitely be taken into careful consideration, but it is also for health and safety reasons. Can a robot ever really truly replace the trained eyes of a human being who is an expert in their field?

“Driven, in part, by the wide trend for digitalisation, automation is here to stay,” Dik Vos continued. “In fact, in a world with masses of integrated systems and embedded software, the automation of business processes is one of the most dangerous areas of automation. The only way to ensure organisations are working as they should is to continually test the entire business process.

“During testing, it is possible for businesses to pool together combined knowledge into actionable digital intelligence which can be used to automate the majority of the quality assurance processes. However, it takes a human to predict what a human will do. Automation needs humanity.

“The automation of business processes needs to be underpinned by a comprehensive end-to-end quality assurance plan. Within this plan, organisations would be wise to never completely remove humans from quality assurance, even if, as we believe, such a huge percentage of transactional activities involving IT will be automated over the next five to 10 years.”


 Where are we headed?

It is difficult to even hazard a guess at where the industry may be in 10, 20, or even 50 years’ time. Half a century ago it is unlikely that people believed robots would be able to perform minor surgical procedures, but yet here we are! New discoveries and developments are being made every day, and who knows what doors they will open up for us in the distant future.

“It is unlikely that we are going to see any robot uprisings any time soon,” said Neil Gallant. “But the potential threats that an increase in automation brings to our society should not be underestimated. With the economic state of the world already so fragile, any attempts to research areas that could result in unemployment should be very carefully considered before implementation.

“That being said, we are living in exciting times where we are able to witness such developments taking place. So much has already occurred over the past few years that many people may not be aware of. We may not have reached the exciting level of developments as seen in the movies – not yet anyway – but with the amount of ideas and research taking place across the world, the sky really is the limit.”