The field of robotics is never far from today’s headlines, and opinions often seem extremely divided, especially those regarding the future of business and industry. For every positive prediction that these advances will free workers up from menial, repetitive tasks and enable increased innovation and progress, there is also the counter argument that robots may take our jobs - the potential result of which could be mass unemployment.
Not knowing exactly how robots will affect our daily work and lives has led to widespread speculation, so understanding the facts regarding what is happening right now can lead us towards making better predictions for the future. To achieve this, it’s important to gain factual insight into the sectors robotics is currently starting to make an impact in, such as e-commerce and engineering, as well as those that are more likely to see the introduction of this technology later down the line.
How is robotics being used right now?
So to put future-gazing on hold for a second, how is robotics being used right now, in a way that is having a tangible impact on specific industries? One key sector is e-commerce, where the use of more complex robots, operating alongside trained workers, is a rapidly emerging scenario. This can be attributed to the growing shift in consumer behaviour - according to PWC, 54 per cent of consumers buy products online on a weekly or monthly basis, meaning that warehouses and fulfillment & distribution centres are having to scale rapidly in order to accommodate market demand.
It obviously helps that these structured environments are ideal for robots: even floors, steady lighting, regulated climate conditions, and a population of trained personnel, mean risks are generally regarded as small-scale. On the flip side of this, environments with a high degree of unpredictable factors, such as schools or hospitals, are unlikely to see the widespread integration of robots just yet - but that’s not to say they never will.
The key element in progress towards this is Computer Vision: robots need a ‘seeing eye’ in order to adapt to the changing factors that humans are prone to creating. Surroundings which contain customers, patients and other members of the general public, are highly susceptible to irregularity and so the real challenge is to create machines which are perceptive and adaptable to the environments around them. The development of AI and machine learning technology will have a huge impact here and the exciting news is that the industry is moving in the right direction.
Engineers are working on sensors, cameras and computer chips, which can deliver a higher performance than ever before. To complement this, new programming languages or frameworks (e.g. Robot Operating System ROS) are becoming more competent in reactive situations and as a result, robots can plan actions based on perceptions in real time. Once algorithms are strengthened and a machine has the capability to battle the infinite amounts of possible scenarios it could face, we could see a massive rollout of robots in these highly populated environments.
Will robots take your job?
So what will this look like in real life and does this mean that robots will indeed end up taking our jobs? Well, the answer is both yes and no but generally speaking, robots are more likely to take over ‘tasks’ rather than entire jobs. Based on what we currently know, robots are beginning to work alongside humans, performing useful but predictable and repetitive roles and are therefore freeing people up to do their jobs in a more efficient manner. Car factories in Germany, for example, have used robots for welding car frames for decades now, and overall, this has increased productivity, leading to a growing industry still providing a huge number of jobs. Since these innovations however, the field has advanced even further and is beginning to produce robots which can integrate more fully into processes, perform a variety of tasks and understand and react to the world around them.
More generally however, it’s important to be mindful that development will come in stages and although technology is advancing at a fast pace, robotics is an extremely complex field. It’s highly unlikely that in the near future there will be one type of humanoid robot (as seen in movies like iRobot) that can do any number of tasks, from cleaning your household up to buying groceries in a crowded street. It’s far more plausible that robots will be designed for very specific tasks with high degrees of control and routine, enabling increased safety, efficiency and productivity for teams and workforces, and further down the line, customers, patients and the wider population.
Furthermore, it’s not only a question of only whether a robot can do a task but there are also other considerations, such as whether it’s a cost-effective solution and so on. Robotics is certainly here to stay, and the positive news is that the evolution of this technology is, on the whole, allowing industries to achieve things faster and smarter. But rather than making wild predictions about the future, we should focus our energies on the exciting advances that are happening as we speak and how we can shape these to the advantages of both society today and future generations.
Frederik Brantner is Cofounder and CEO of Magazino