The Brainstorm long read: with millions of jobs set to be replaced by changes in technology, we may not be able to stop the rise of robots and automation, but we can plan for it

The robots are coming. We can see the enormous strides that technology makes each year and the jobs taken over by automation. Robots are now embedded with sophisticated intelligence, sensors and general high level contextual reasoning which means they can perform tasks previously the stuff of fiction. Yes, believe it or not, there really are robots performing surgeries on humans. Robot-assisted surgery can give surgeons more precise control over their instruments and an improved view of what they are doing.

According to a recent survey, four million jobs in the British private sector could be replaced by robots in the next decade. That would impact on 15 percent of the current workforce and would have much the same impact here in Ireland. Of course, new opportunities will come along, particularly ones which require strong cognitive and social skills, but this really means that people will have to become more human.

We cannot stop innovation, but we can plan for it. We must because the signs are that computer systems are becoming incredibly good at performing multi-faceted tasks. Take autonomous cars which can be classified as robotic vehicles. Driving would fit all the criteria for a complicated task that only humans should be able to perform, yet we have autonomous cars increasingly racking up the miles collision free.

Google's self-driving car goes for a spin

We get uncanny responses from computerised voice-activated assistants like Siri and Echo. In the game-playing arena, we are seeing machines beat the previously unbeatable professional players and generally encroaching on skills that once belonged to humans alone. All these technologies eventually can be integrated into robots. Are we close to the tipping point where humans become redundant in many sectors?

AI is getting smarter

The main driver for the shift to a robotic workforce is the rise of Artificial Intelligence. Of couse, there are limitations to AI (or the underlying machine learning algorithms to be more exact). For the most part, the limitations are due to computing power and the actual sophistication of the algorithms. A computer can only solve problems it is programmed to solve - it does not have any generalized analytical ability - and this ultimately limits machine learning.

When it comes to robots, people tend to see them in their grandest form as a Humanoid Robot communicating with us as portrayed in movies like Bladerunner. It is difficult to get the public to steer away from thinking of robots solely as droids, humanoid robots with human characteristics, as opposed to the robotic Roomba vacuum cleaner. Droids therefore would display perception, processing and action embodied in a recognisably anthropomorphic form to emulate the physical, cognitive and social dimensions of the human body and experience.

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A true humanoid robot would be a recreation of the human thought process, a man-made machine with our intellectual abilities. This would include the ability to learn just about anything, to reason, to use language and to formulate original ideas. Roboticists are nowhere near achieving this level of artificial intelligence, but they have made a lot of progress with more limited AI. Today's robots can replicate some specific elements of intellectual ability.

AI is used in droids to provide perception including computer vision and other sensing modalities such as taste, smell, sonar, IR, haptic feedback, tactile sensors and motion sensors. It also includes implementation of unconscious physiological mechanisms such as the vestibulo-ocular reflex, which allows humans to track visual areas of interest while moving.

We may even see our manager’s job being taken over by a robot

AI is also very important for human-robot interaction so that they can communicate efficiently, accurately, and conveniently with humans and pick up visual cues such as gestures and facial expressions that guide interaction. AI is crucial for all their learning and adaptive behaviour so they can cope with environmental changes. Any robot that has legged locomotion uses very sophisticated AI to be able to walk up stairs and steep inclines and over rough, uneven terrain. Likewise, advanced AI is required for arm control and dexterous manipulation so they can catch balls, chop vegetables, perform telesurgery and pour coffee.

Meet your robot workmates 

If we accept that machines with incredible performance capabilities can be developed, operated and sold at very little cost to perform jobs currently performed by humans, we must examine which domains they will thrive in. Even the most ardent futurist will not argue that robots can perform all tasks in a superior manner to humans. We would still need large numbers of humans to design, build and operate this technology. History has shown us that the apparent loss of human jobs to technology is moderated by the creation of new kinds of skills necessary for controlling the machines.

In healthcare, there are Panasonic Hospi Robots which are designed to perform drudge work in hospitals like toting around medicine, moving patients and performing rote tasks like hair washing. Hospi-R is basically a medicine cabinet on wheels, designed to move fragile or bulky medicine and equipment around a hospital. It uses a combination of cameras, wi-fi and pre-programmed maps to navigate around buildings, and is capable of using elevators that have been kitted out with the right hands-free components. An ID security card system keeps unauthorised individuals from pilfering its contents, and it moves at a sedate one metre a second.

On the rounds: Hospi-R

True droids are far off, but there is a growing trend for cuter robots. A congenial robot called Pepper is designed to be a genuine day-to-day companion with an ability to perceive emotions. Pepper is capable of recognising the principal human emotions and adapting his behaviour to the mood of his interlocutor. It is deployed in stores as a new way of welcoming, informing and amusing customers. Pepper can recognise a face, speak, hear and move around autonomously.

A similar robot is Robear from the Robot Sensor Systems Research Team which perform tasks such as helping elderly patients stand up and lifting them from a bed into a wheelchair. Lifting people can be severely strenuous for care workers, who must do it many times a day. It is commonly known that Japan’s aging population is one of the biggest problems facing the country, and they are seeking solutions in technology.

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Robots do not go on strike, do not turn up late for work and do not take breaks

Another care robot is the Care-O-Bot, which can perform a number of fetch and carry tasks along with reminding an elderly patient of important appointments or when to take medication. It can also respond to an emergency, such as moving towards a fallen person and setting up communication with an emergency centre, who can talk to the user by video telephone using the screen, speakers and microphone of the robot. 

The Irish Robot Farmers Association

Robots are also working in agriculture. Wine Bot is a self-propelled robot for pruning vines, removing young shoots, and monitoring soil and vine health, with the aim of replacing vineyard workers. The Nursery Bot is used to replace the menial task of moving potted plants around. These robots have rolling tires, gripper arms, and trays to pick up potted plants, carry them, and place them where they need to go. 

A good vintage: the WIne Bot at work

The Hamster Bot Rosphere rolls over fields inside a pendulum which rotates on an axle to make it roll and steer itself just like a hamster. It is designed to navigate crops without damaging them. It also collects information about soil composition, temperature, moisture and plant health to send back to the farmer.

The Herder Bot "Rover" is designed to herd cows where they need to go using sensors and GPS instead of a dog. One of the smallest flying robots ever made is the RoboBee Bee Bot which has the goal of autonomous pollination and post-disaster search and rescue. UK researchers are using them to map the honeybee brain so they can synthesize bee behaviour.  

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Robots at your service

The most popular consumer robot category has been the cleaning robots. The leading brand here for years has been the iRobot Roomba Vacuum Cleaning Robot. The latest version has up to ten times the air power by automatically increasing the performance of the Gen 3 motor on carpet and rugs, where dust and dirt hide. It can be controlled via an app, scheduled to run at specific times and can be automatically recharged.

Robots are also taking on the delivery market. One example is the tub-sized robot from Starship Technologies which can make its way from local stores with groceries. Once it arrives, the owner unlocks it with a passcode. Customers would gain from being able to decide exactly when they receive their packages, while stores will reduce costs. Customers use an app to programme the drop-offs and unlock the robot once it arrives to retrieve their goods.

Those with tech skills in computing, engineering, electronics and robotics will in more control of their destiny than those who focus on less technical pursuits.

There are a growing range of companion robots such as Buddy from Blue Frog Robotics, which is billed as a companion robot for kids, seniors or the family. The NAO humanoid robot will talk to you, sing to or with you or just be your companion around the house. Jibo is a companion robot that takes photos and videos and does some serious multi-tasking from being a "hands-free" helper to an education and telepresence device and smart platform. It is basically your family’s new baby-sitter.

The Knightscope Dalek-like K5 security intrusion detection robot is designed to detect anomalous behaviour, such as someone walking through a building at night, and report back to a remote security centre. The K5 uses four high definition cameras, sensors, a license-plate recognition camera, four microphones, a weather sensor for measuring barometric pressure, carbon dioxide levels, temperature, navigation equipment, and electric motors. All of this is packed into the robot’s dome-shaped body with a big rechargeable battery and a computer.

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Is there anything a robot can’t do?

The main benefit of robots is reliability. Robots will perform jobs in the future from tasks such as building technology and performing surgeries to hovering the floor, feeding fish and securing a site. The main barrier at the moment is price. They are still a luxury item but that will change as the main successful robots become mass produced.

Going forward, companies will also roll out better service robots that are dynamically able to respond to various unexpected scenarios.  Another job that robots may surpass humans at is house painting. Quite simply, drones have become pin-point accurate in their positioning in 3D space, so it is not unreasonable to see drones moving in swarms around and inside buildings with sprayers attached covering the walls in whatever colour takes the owners fancy. Crop spraying is a more basic form of this.

Lock hard: a parking robot at work in Duesseldorf airport. Photo: Federico Gambarini/DPA

We may even see our manager’s job being taken over by a robot! When people are presented with the vision of a robotic boss, they naturally picture a humanoid robot, but we must remember that today's robots can replicate some specific elements of intellectual ability and it is possible that a robot will replace line managers in some roles. However, the reality might be a little less dramatic as the robotic line manager may not even take on a physical humanlike form, but rather something akin to Siri or the Amazon Echo ruling over the workers in a less imposing manner through a speaker to inform them of targets reached or missed.

A true humanoid robot would be a man-made machine with our intellectual abilities

In the long term, robots are cheaper than human labour, but the initial investment can be very costly. It is still difficult and time-consuming to programme robots to perform multiple tasks, or to even reprogramme a robot to perform tasks outside its original function. This accounts for why human workers are to date still cheaper to deploy than robots in labour markets like China.

It also turns out that humans are now eager and ready for robotic companions. A Business Insider study claims the consumer robot market will grow seven times faster than the market for manufacturing robots. A long-term study into human-robotic relationships asked a teenage boy in 1983 who he’d talk to about dating problems. He answered that it would be his dad and not a robot, because machines could never truly understand human relationships.

However, an interview with another teenage boy from the same neighbourhood in 2008 found that this boy would prefer to talk to a robot as he believe it could be programmed with a large database of knowledge about relationships and thus be better than his dad’s advice.

When robots go rogue

Robots can fail and the algorithms may fail in some deadly situations. There is a realistic threat that they may also be hacked so additional security measures need to be taken. There is also a real risk of privacy invasion, especially in the case of a robot which has complete freedom to roam inside the house, so we have to ensure that the surveillance footage is securely stored.

Look into my eyes

Recently, members of the European Parliament voted on robots' legal status and if a kill switch is required. Their report called for the adoption of all-inclusive rules for how humans will interact with robots. They also ask in this report, as do many others, if member states need to introduce a basic income in the light of robots taking jobs. That is a debate for another day.

The MEPs also considered the legal liabilities of robots and suggested that this should be proportionate to the actual level of instructions given to the robot and its autonomy. This may result in robot owners needing to take out insurance cover for any damage caused by their robots.

It does firmly show that the fabric of society is moving towards a technological age. The pace of life shows no signs of slowing down and those with tech skills in computing, engineering, electronics & robotics will in more control of their destiny than those who focus on less technical pursuits.

The end is automated

Already, many tedious automated tasks has become the realm of the robots and there is no reason why this trend will not continue. The day of businesses outsourcing projects to robots could come sooner than we think. Costs are climbing in the outsourcing industry in countries such as India, where high inflation and a skills shortage are increasing salaries and training costs so the appeal of getting robots to carry out work is increasing.

We cannot stop innovation, but we can plan for it

We may see large warehouses on the edge of cities full of robots carrying out repetitive tasks in a much more efficient manner than humans. It must be remembered that robots do not go on strike, do not turn up late for work and do not take breaks. As long as they have power and people to repair them, all is fine.

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A RTÉ Brainstorm video based on this article

But we must remember that technological advances actually create jobs. Yes, it eradicates dull and low-skill occupations, but it simultaneously creates entirely new categories of work. Perhaps the arrival of robots will free up educated employees to concentrate on more creative tasks and grow their businesses? After all, no-one wins new customers by spending hours doing accounts…

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ