Humanity has a tendency to build technologies that increase our capacity to interface with the world, extend ourselves, and reshape our environments. Though of all the wonders that we have created, robotics may just be the most contentious and beneficial technology of them all.
It is often noted that the third industrial revolution began in 1950 and is presently one we’re transitioning away from, into our fourth. In this third instance of technological upheaval, the world began its digital revolution. In this era, we witnessed the emergence of mainframe computing, personal computers, information technology, advances in telecommunications, biotechnology and eventually space exploration.
For the world’s industries, two major inventions are likely the reason behind our ability to produce high-spec machinery, circuit boards, and any other tech marvel that emerged in those times. These being Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) and robots, making high-level automation possible in many industries and sectors.
There are indeed many types of robots used in industrial settings such as car production lines or even as automated warehouse picker-packers. Looming over these applications of robotics is the strive to creating a bipedal, human-like robot complete with artificial intelligence (AI) akin to our very own.
That’s not to say that the industrial application of robotics is by any means less desirable or genius, but there are many out there working to make fully-fledged androids, which is considered by some to be the pinnacle of human engineering; according to philosophers, pop-culture, and even some scientists, this advancement could lead to the eventual downfall of mankind.
These fears aren’t without reason, historically the introduction of automation has resulted in some areas of human labor becoming obsolete and this will be an ongoing trend wherever the power of robotics manages to reach. Though concerns of robots overthrowing mankind entirely are somewhat irrational, despite the fact that certain companies are building robotics specifically for warfare purposes.
Humans are getting robotic upgrades with artificial limbs, eyes and other amazing augmentations that are beginning to blur the line between humans and machines. It’s an extremely exciting time.
Robots Crush and Create Jobs.
Perhaps one of the most troublesome bottlenecks for robotics is the displacement of workers they tend to cause, though this is something that has historically been a trend since the invention of the wheel, so let’s take a look at one of the most notable examples of robots impacting economies and workforces, the U.S. automotive industry.
In 1958, a U.S. publication titled the ‘Nation’ termed the displacement of humans by robots as the “Automation Depression.”
The piece was published at the tail-end of one of America's many recessions post-World War 2. Due to robot automation, unemployment rates in 1958 reached approximately 7.5 percent. Thousands of workers lost their jobs to machines, and seemingly there was no plan to recover from the Automation Depression.
In part, the author of the article writes:
“We are stumbling blindly into the automation era with no concept or plan to reconcile the need of workers for income and the need of business for cost-cutting and worker-displacing innovations,”
These problems do indeed persist today, robots are either already here doing work for us, or soon will be. Historically, any technological innovation has managed to replace or augment the position of a human in a given job, but by the end of the 20th century, it was apparent that society simply needed to adjust to the new norms, even though many suffered as a result.
According to a 2017 research paper titled “The Impacts of Robots on Productivity, Employment and Jobs” from the International Federation of Robotics, (IFR) automation has resulted in some very positive outcomes aside from productivity and improving competitiveness. The IFR found that whilst middle income/skilled jobs were overall being reduced, the new skill range of workers in that middle bracket is quite large. Furthermore, robots have created a demand for high-skilled workers, though the issue of upskilling and retraining those in the lower-income spectrum remains somewhat a challenge.
In addition, the paper explains that robots “complement and augment labor”, meaning that robots substitute labor activities, but do not replace jobs. According to the data they collected, less than 10% of jobs are “fully automatable”, making the implication that humans and robots will work together in many fields, though that doesn’t stop the drive for robotics being applied in any area.
Market research company Forrester believes that within the next decade or so, robotics in the U.S. will create almost 13 million new jobs that had never existed before.
The IFR report agrees, and to ram that point home using the U.S. automotive industry as a prime example, the study says that between 2010 and 2015 more than 60,000 industrial robots were installed, and in this time the number of employees in this sector rose by approximately 230,000.
So yes, there will be steep learning curves, worker displacement and even some unexpected troubles that could arrive with higher-tech robotics, but seemingly they are essential to not only advancing society but securing our economy too.
Now and Then.
The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) started roughly at the beginning of the 2000s with the Internet and other marvels like big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), AI becoming mainstays in the operations of many enterprises and institutions.
Advancements in other 4IR technologies also are causing robotics to become more commonplace in areas outside of industrial settings. Using 3D printers, engineers at the University of California San Diego managed to establish a means to create robots at low cost and high speeds, these have been dubbed as ‘flexoskeletons’. The implications are huge, as reportedly it takes approximately 10 minutes to print one for the cost of less than $1, and then a total of two hours to assemble the flexoskeleton into an operational robot, for whatever purpose it has been designed for.
Accessibility into robotics is a real game-changer, meaning that innovation can take off at breakneck speeds as anyone with access to a 3D printer and some know-how can potentially change the world.
AI and IoT will be major roles in our new industrial era, but there is no shadow of a doubt that robotics may benefit the most from them, and become the poster-child for the 4IR.
The more complexly mechanized and intelligent our machines are, the more they can communicate, operate and even upgrade themselves. With AI acting as the brain of a machine, and IoT as its social-ecosystem, certain robots may never need to interact with a human unless it’s for repairs, and even that may become a thing of the past.