By 2030, nearly a third of all jobs in the UK may have been lost to automation. Manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, as well as administrative and support services, are most at threat, according to the gloomy prediction from audit from PwC. Such is the fear that humans could be pushed out of the workplace that a “robot tax” has been called for by Jeremy Corbyn, Bill Gates and the European Union.
However, imagine a world where not only are robots commonplace, they also boost our industries – helping us to work faster and smarter. Taxed robots or not, the reality is that the automated future is unlikely to be anything like that depicted in dystopian fiction and on the big screen.
The chances are there will be no scary system that takes over the human race, like Skynet from the Terminator franchise, but rather machines powered by artificial intelligence (AI), and instead of having to compete for jobs with robots, we can collaborate with them.
Take assembly lines. Whether an independent food brand or a manufacturer of niche goods, speed is of the essence when it comes to packing orders and ensuring timely delivery. However, it might be that the logistics leave much to be desired. Meet Workspace customer, Intelligent Robots.
Zheng Lin is the company’s Co-founder and CEO, based in The Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey. Lin and his team are developing RPuck, a self-driving robot designed to be deployed in warehouses to transports goods between locations more easily. “Traditional warehouse automation solutions, such as conveyor belts, are incredibly painful to both implement and maintain. They’re pretty inefficient and rigid. There’s also no flexibility in the locations that goods can be moved between… and flexibility is key for dynamic logistics,” says Lin.
RPuck has environmental awareness, thanks to a process known as sensor fusion, which means it can safely operate around human workers without bumping into them. Different sensors enable a robot to detect obstacles and avoid collisions. The more a robot learns about the environment it’s operating in, the better it will become at navigating it. “It’s also cost-effective, because our Robot-as-a-Service model means there’s no upfront investment for users and all maintenance and upgrading [of the software] is handled at our end,” Lin adds.
Maintenance can be done remotely, unlike maintaining and upgrading equipment like conveyor belts, which rely on a skilled engineer either to be on-site or called out. Beyond the warehouse, robots can help with intricate tasks that require extremely fine motor skills, such as product development and testing.
Rich Walker is Managing Director at Shadow Robot Company, based at Leroy House in Islington and Spectrum House in Camden. The company sells dexterous robotic hands to other companies developing robots like Moley Robotics, which prototyped the first automated kitchen a few years ago and is expected to launch to consumers later this year.
Walker believes that robots have the potential to be more reliable and agile, although there is still some way to go. However, with each attempt, a dexterous robotic hand becomes nimbler and adept at mastering tasks. These hands also have ultra-sensitive touch sensors built into the fingertips.
“Most robots have grippers and are able to pick up a specific object, but they can’t yet perform as well as humans. We have cognitive skills that make it easy for us to reach out and handle an object, even if we haven’t seen it before,” says Walker. “By using better physical hardware and building in AI and machine learning, we at Shadow are hoping to give robots the same abilities.”
Leaving complex and repetitive tasks in safe and capable robotic hands will allow companies to focus more of their efforts on the creative and moneymaking aspects of their business. At a TED talk in November, Sebastian Thrun, educator and entrepreneur at Google X, argued that once humans break the chains of dull, tedious work, we can unleash our full creativity. “I believe all of us are insanely creative,” he explained. “[AI] will empower us to turn creativity into action.”
Robots got you thinking? Want to learn more about the companies using them? Read our two part piece on our WBI Dinner all about The Rise of The Bots.
Looking for a space to grow your business? Join companies like Shadow Robot by checking out one of Workspace’s 65 locations across London.
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