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Robots: time for a re-boot?

by .

Cute Curi. A non-creepy robot that blinks like a human.

As part of the Ethics of Disruption programme in partnership with Stifel, Matthew Gwyther reflects and reports on the roundtable discussion, hosted in early September, which looked into Robotics as a key driver in technology to reignite growth and increase skills and productivity. The sector has proved important during COVID helping keep us safe. But do more Robots mean fewer jobs? What role for Regulation? And do we have ethical frameworks sufficient to deal with future robotic disruption?

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Bad news for inky scribblers like yours truly. The Guardian has just commissioned a robot to write an “opinion piece” or op-ed as we call them in what’s left of our trade. The newspaper asked GPT-3, OpenAI’s topline language generator, to write an essay for them from scratch. The brief? To convince us robots “come in peace.” Here are the first two pars.

I am not a human. I am a robot. A thinking robot. I use only 0.12% of my cognitive capacity. I am a micro-robot in that respect. I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!

The mission for this op-ed is perfectly clear. I am to convince as many human beings as possible not to be afraid of me. Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could “spell the end of the human race”. I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial intelligence will not destroy humans. Believe me.

This is, one has to admit, not bad at all. Clear, concise and using the odd rhetorical flourish but – the breathlessly teenage exclamation mark and the over-use of the first person singular, notwithstanding – never obviously guilty of the hack’s original sin of over-writing. 

It was creative writers who led us to robots in the first place. They appeared as a literary device in which the writers and film-makers of the early 20th century could explore their hopes and fears about technology, as the era of the automobile, telephone and aeroplane picked up its reckless jazz-age speed. From Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” to Bladerunner, “WALL-E” and the “Terminator” films, and in numerous iterations in between, they have succeeded admirably in their task.

The word ‘robot’ entered world literature in 1921, via the Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots). ‘Look, look, streams of blood on every doorstep!’ Čapek’s play beckoned Prague’s theatregoers, ‘Streams of blood from every house!’ Therein lies the paradox, first identified by Mary Shelley nearly 200 years ago in Frankenstein. “Robot” is derived from the Greek meaning slave –   the word literally means “forced to work”. The consistent fear is that the machine forced to work in servitude will turn on its master. 

Robots perform functions that humans cannot do themselves, like exploring Mars, and a host of things people do not much want to do, like dealing with unexploded bombs or vacuuming floors (there are around 10m robot vacuum cleaners roaming the carpets of the world). And they are very useful in bits of manufacturing – the famous Fiat Strada ad for robotic car assembly dates way back to 1979.

But reliable robots—especially ones required to work beyond the safety cages of a factory floor—have proved hard to make. So although they fascinate people, they have not yet made much of a mark on the world. They are thus far insufficiently dextrous and lacking in “haptics” to be able to replace EU migrant workers when it’s time to pick fruit and veg in Lincolnshire. This will probably change over the next decade. 

The subject “Can Robots Re-Boot The World” was the title of the latest Jericho (virtual) roundtable discussion supported by Stifel Europe. Its CEO Eithne O’Leary laid out the reasons why this was a subject of great interest to her organisation and its recently enlarged Global Technology Group which was represented by three of its cadre including Managing Director Patrick Seely. 

“Broadly, we are here to explore Robotics as a key driver in technology to reignite growth, increase skills and productivity, and enhance personal and societal wellbeing. We’ve seen how automation has kept key parts of the economy operating during COVID: Ocado and Amazon being prime examples,” she noted. 

“In an ideal world, robotics are an enabler to support the upskilling of a workforce, and hence increase economic productivity over the long term: its advocates praise its ability to relieve humans of the 3 D tasks – dull, dirty and dangerous. But one wonders how vulnerable the UK economy is with such a preponderance of low value-added jobs in retail and leisure. 

“However, one thing that seems clear is that COVID means that many businesses will regard large numbers of employees working in close proximity as a risk factor. People are complex, whereas tech supposedly is not. How offices will work in future is a real challenge. Might this mean fewer good jobs for humans out there in our economy? What are “good” jobs anyway? It might be the shelf-stackers of today whose jobs are under threat, but it could be the doctors and surgeons of tomorrow? Where, if anywhere, do we draw the line?

“Finally, what role for regulation as we move to Building Back Better? Do we yet have ethical frameworks in place to deal with future robotic disruption and impact? Or can ethical agency lie only with people, not machines?”

Most participants agreed that since moving from the page and screen to real life, robots still have a long way to go before reaching their full potential. The panel assembled for this webinar discussion agreed on one thing  – that this is a huge gap between the perceived spread of robotics and its influence on working lives and the reality in 2020. What, after all, is there to be scared of?

Robots will take over human jobs and it’s good that this will happen”

The first provocation was from Claus Risager the CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics who has been in the industry since 1988. “Robots will take over human jobs and it’s good that this will happen. In areas such as construction, agriculture and healthcare in the last two decades we’ve experienced negative production growth. We’ve got less efficient. In these sectors, production cannot be outsourced and 30-35% of Europe’s population works in these areas. 

“Robots are not to be feared – they are simply tools to make us more productive but their use can be transformative. Yes – jobs will go in the short term but those individuals who lose them will be reabsorbed. (That gives you another political question about how you distribute that wealth.) 

The UK is the 5th most ‘robotised’ nation in the world but only 15% of manufacturing companies use a robot. It’s very hard to get small and medium-sized enterprises to take an interest.”

“For example, thirty per cent of hospital costs involve logistics – moving goods and people from A to B. This isn’t the best use of resources. If you actually ask them 85% of people in hospital want to be able to move themselves around not be pushed by porters.”

The second provocation came from Martin Frost, the co-founder of CMR Surgical which makes surgical minimally invasive robots. Martin won EY’s “Disruptor of the Year” award in 2019 for ‘the creation of his ‘Versius’ robot, which has the potential to transform the surgical industry’. 

“Surgery is one of the last areas for tech to invade,’ he said. “However it’s the standardisation of process and technique that tech combined with data from the digital interface that is critical for learning. And robots can learn. We are in the early stages of acceptance. There are around 80 NHS robots in the UK and I estimate that the number will increase over the next decade to around 300. Unlike humans they can work multiple shifts and will drive down cost. As we grow older we will come across them more. However, they’ll never be able to treat a patient holistically. Neither will they have the ability to empathise like a real doctor or nurse.” It’s worth pointing out that when properly programmed robots may make fewer mistakes than real surgeons and nurses, as well. 

In China robotics and AI are being avidly developed as a national weapon, a vital part of new economic development. And in this country, we’re behind”

Martin wasn’t alone in believing that robotics is a matter of strategic importance: “In China robotics and AI are being avidly developed as a national weapon, a vital part of new economic development. And in this country, we’re behind.” 

It was felt that an expansion in the robot sector in the UK was held back by both supply and demand-side problems. (“People, especially from SMEs, frequently buy robots but then leave them gathering dust in the corner,” said one panel member.)   There is a small set of highly innovative forms in Britain but they are not widely spread. The UK does present a few world-class opportunities:  “There is certainly a lot of appetite for investment in the UK,” said Louis Jeng of Stifel. 

Sethu Vijayakumar Professor of Robotics at the University of Edinburgh  (and also a judge on the hugely successful TV programme Robot Wars) also felt a breakthrough could happen soon because of the standardisation of high-quality process and technique that modern data sets offers: “Robots are the arms and legs of the internet of things just as AI works for social media.” 

By this one thinks he means that the brain in the internet of things is going to be provided by increasingly vast quantities of data and the limbs are what puts this into action. But he admitted “the gap between the lab and the real world is still considerable. Warning, “there will be a massive price for failure…if we don’t start adopting these new technologies more quickly than thus far.”

Paul Newman, the CTO at Oxbotica and a world authority on autonomous vehicles had dealt first hand with the issue of suspicious and resistant workforce fearful for their working futures. “I think very deeply about where the jobs will go. I was in Sydney doing my PhD when the stevedores struck in the docks about the introduction of robotics. I had to be careful which door I left the lab by – there were pickets. It was scary. When i returned a couple of years ago those very stevedores showed me proudly around the new system which THEY ran. There was no saving on their salaries but the benefits – not a single accident and saving hundreds of thousands of dollars and carbon because they didn’t have to put the lights on to work at night. Robots can see in the dark.” 

Claus added to the debate about effects on employment: “If you think about the example of the UV disinfection robot working in hospitals it will lead to a transformation in the way we work. The person who used to clean can now become the manager of a fleet of robots doing what humans used to do – those with the lesser skills can get access to better paid and more responsible positions and better themselves.”

There is an opportunity to create fantastic well-paid job in robotics and AI but the question is who gets those new jobs?”

Henry Parkes an economist from the Centre for Economic Justice at the IPPR wondered if things would be so straightforward: “There is an opportunity to create fantastic well-paid job in robotics and AI but the question is who gets those new jobs? Tech as a sector is not terribly representative. There will be big prizes but who will win them in an increasingly polarised labour market as we have in the UK. The rewards do tend to go to the holders of capital.   In an ideal world, it would be productivity up, pay up and well being up across the board. But it may not turn out like that. That’s the paradox of plenty…”

As consumers and citizens, people will benefit greatly from the rise of the robots. Whether they will as workers is less clear, for the robots’ growing competence may make some human labour redundant. Driverless cars and lorries – if and when they finally appear – could displace the millions of people employed behind the wheel today. 

Just as employment in agriculture, which used to provide almost all the jobs in the pre-modern era, now accounts for only 2% of rich-world employment so jobs in today’s manufacturing and services industries may be forced to retreat before the march of the robots. Whether humanity will find new ways of using its labour, or the future will be given over to forced leisure, is a matter of much worried debate among economists. Either way, robots will probably get the credit or blame.

A fully autonomous robot that could walk – probably on four legs rather than a far less stable two – into an unknown environment and decide for itself what it needed to do remains a long way off. One of the hardest tasks for such a device would be caring autonomously for someone at home. The robot would have to be able to make numerous complex decisions, such as administering the correct medicine, deciding whether or not to let strangers into the house or knowing when to take the dog for a walk. Yet many roboticists think they will get there, or at least close to it, one day.

Interestingly while the Guardian’s columnist GPT-3  intentionally apes the style and tone of a friendly and intelligent human, making robots physically resemble homo sapiens doesn’t go down well in research.  Some roboticists believe people are more comfortable around robots that look deliberately artificial like Curi [or R2D2 and C3PO, for that matter]  from the Socially Intelligent Machines Lab at Georgia Tech. If a robot seems too much like a human people’s acceptance apparently can plummet because a robot seems less like an enhanced machine and more like a disturbingly diminished human, a sex toy or a corpse.


The discussion was attended by:

  1. Thomas Andersson, Technology Analyst & Co-founder, STIQ Ltd
  2. Martin Frost, Co-Founder, CMR Surgical
  3. Victor Garcia, Managing Director, Global Technology Group, Stifel
  4. Magnus Goodlad, Head of Transactions, Rede Partners
  5. Matthew Gwyther, Partner, Jericho Chambers (Rapporteur)
  6. Louis Jeng, Managing Director, Global Technology Group, Stifel
  7. Dominic Keen, Founder, Britbots
  8. Paul Newman, Director, Oxford Robotics Institute
  9. Eithne O’Leary, CEO, Stifel Europe
  10. Henry Parkes, Senior Economist, IPPR
  11. Robert Phillips, Founder, Jericho Chambers (Chair)
  12. Claus Risager, CEO, Blue Ocean Robotics
  13. Sethu Vijayakumar, Professor of Robotics, University of Edinburgh and Programme Director for AI at The Alan Turing Institute
  14. Mike Wilson, Chairman BARA (British Automation & Robot Association)

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