What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘automation’? Chatbots, robotic assembly lines, or the shifting job market? It is something everyone talks about whenever you go to conferences on the future of work, and, unsurprisingly, it can be a polarising topic. Some might see automation as an opportunity to improve productivity, time management, and speed up innovation. Others might raise concerns about the disappearance of jobs and the future of employment. The topic is complex, ill-defined, and contextually sensitive.
Public opinion, and that of experts and practitioners, has no doubt been influenced by decades of science fiction, such as Asimov’s ‘I, Robot’, first published in 1950, which inspired the 2004 blockbuster film. It seems that we humans are entranced by androids, yet we also develop feelings towards more industrial-looking robots, like Wall-e and R2D2. Some people are ready to welcome robots into the workplace.
The positive and negative connotations conjured by the term ‘automation’ force many to question the place of robots and smart machines in the modern business environment. Among them is electronic repair specialists, Neutronic Technologies. As manufacturers of engineering parts that help companies to keep hundreds of different automated processes up and running, Neutronic Technologies is understandably interested in where the future is going to take us.
Will it take centuries for our society to reach the kinds of automation explored in science fiction? Or are we a closer to a machine takeover than we might think? Above all, what impact will automation have on us, our lives, and work experiences?
In this interview, Managing Director of Neutronic Technologies, Neil Gallant (pictured below), tells MARGINALIA about the latest robotics research, and how he thinks the future of work will be influenced by automation.
Gloria Lombardi: What are the biggest developments in automation?
Neil Gallant: Developing robotics is the next stage in automation. Automation is already integrated into many aspects of our daily lives – motion-sensitive doors, for example, and assembly lines and automobile production. Robotics is simply the next step along this path.
Some of the biggest developments in the automation world will come from the automobile industry – self-driving cars are already being tested.
Developments are likely to come from the continued 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.
We have already seen glimpses of the future starting to creep into reality, such as 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. Nevertheless it certainly shows the direction in which we are headed.
But ultimately the Internet of Things can go even further than creating smart homes. For example, ‘smart cities’ could theoretically include connected traffic lights to control vehicle flow, smart bins that inform the right people when they need to be emptied, and even the monitoring of crops growing in fields.
GL: But how is robotics changing the nature of work?
NG: Overall the main change in the last decade is the scale in which robots are now used. The technology is largely unchanged but connectivity has provided a great many benefits. The scale of robotics has exploded and continues to grow, applications are being created on a daily basis for all types of industries and environments.
In many instances, automation improves the quality of production by offering precise repeatability. This would be impossible to achieve by only using human labour. For example, if a potter was to make a 100 identical clay pots, despite her best efforts and excellent craft skills, each individual item would be different. This does not occur with automation because the machine works to predetermined parameters. The end result is quality that is repeated exactly each time, which is important in today’s competitive business environment.
Many CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines now use robots to load and unload the raw materials, meaning that factories can effectively run through the night with limited or no input from humans. This has a positive effect on long-term productivity.
Robots are often used in welding applications because the precision of the welds are more accurate and consistent than that of humans, not to mention quicker. When you can improve quality, speed, and cost, it makes sense to move to automation.
GL: What is the end goal of automation?
NG: Ultimately, 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 – artificial intelligence, which is worthy of its own exploration. I don’t know whether that will become a reality in the future, 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 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 driver being able to react in seconds to any changes around them. While AI can calculate and react faster than any human, we can’t know what actions AI will take in every situation. 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.
GL: You mentioned some of benefits of automation such as the quality and repeatability, which usually leads to cost reductions. But, what are the disadvantages, if any?
NG: 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 world’s economy has been somewhat shaky over the past few years. This has led to 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.
GL: 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. What’s your view on machines taking over jobs?
NG: Robots will never replace humans; automation will only change the jobs people do. I think people need to take the time to understand automation and how it can be applied to our daily lives. Automation creates opportunities just as much as it may replace a job role.
In the future, we will see greater integration between robots and humans. They will work seamlessly together to achieve more effective and efficient results improved safety measures will mean people and machines will benefit from the best that each has to offer.
It is unlikely that we are going to see any robot uprisings any time soon. 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 the androids and smart-buildings as seen in the movies – not yet anyway – but with the cutting-edge research taking place across the world, the sky really is the limit.
GL: So, with the rise of robots, what skills do people need to develop to stay relevant and maximise the opportunity offered by smart machines?
NG: An area where things need to improve rapidly is within education. There is definitely a skills shortage that needs to be filled now and into the future. This means that the apprenticeships schemes and training providers need to improve and make themselves more relevant to the changing environment of automation.
The rise of robotics will create a new high tech workforce who are skilled in programming and fault-finding, developing new applications and then providing support around the clock. So, keeping abreast of technologies and their applications is important. Just look at how some people know how to bring chatbots into the enterprise, while many know very little.