The Road-mapping expert for euRobotics and chair of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems – Special Interest Group (RAS-SIG AB) at Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network lays out his views on the future role and impact of robotics for our economy and society.
David Bisset is one of the leading advisers on robotics for UK and EU government. He has been at the forefront of the slow burning robotics revolution since its early days. The former lecturer and head of robotics research at Dyson Ltd began studying Electronics at London Kings College in 1979 and then completed his PHD at the University of Kent in 1987.
In 2012, David was one of the primary authors of the European Strategic Research Agenda and chaired the domestic robotics committee of EUROP.
In this interview with Tharsus’ Robotics and Autonomous Systems Lead John Hannah, David reflects on the most topical issues within the robotics industry raised in today’s media.
Tharsus: It’s no secret that robotics is one of the most hotly contested topics at the minute, why do you think this is? Is this just hype or will we see the robot revolution imminently?
David Bisset: The term “robot revolution” implies a rapid change over a short period of time. That’s not what is going to happen here. Robotics will impact extensively across nearly all sectors of the economy but the impact will be accumulative and slow. There may be a tipping point where it becomes more visible or where particular applications really take off, particularly as observed by the general public, however robots are already here and in use and the impact is measurable. We should be very conscious about using the terminology “revolution”.
An assessment of this also hinges on the definition of “robot”. It may be easier to discuss the impact from machines that make autonomous decisions. Where those machines are affecting the physical world then this will be transformative in a number of sectors. However, many of these applications are not publically visible, although their impact will become more visible over time. For example, in cities, in healthcare, in farming and the food chain and in the maintenance and inspection of infrastructure.
Tharsus: There has been widespread commentary about human job obsolescence due to AI and robotics. Books such as Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots are a good example of this. What do you make of this? How do you view these concerns when set against the desire to increase productivity and support an ageing workforce?
David Bisset: Firstly, it is important to realise that in many of these studies what is being discussed is AI and robotics rather than just robotics. In particular, the middle ranking clerical jobs may change as a result of increased use of intelligent tools. However, it is important to examine if the word processor or the typewriter, both of which replaced key skills, had any impact on employment. I think in both cases they increased productivity so that more could be done by the same number of people. However, in the transitions, people were displaced and it is the transitions that must be managed.
Each of the reports clearly states that they are only looking at the losses, not at the jobs that will be gained. There is good evidence that the introduction of robotics into manufacturing increases jobs. It will reduce shop floor jobs but it will increase other jobs as raised productivity levels and competitiveness will create new opportunities.
The other way to look at this is that by not introducing automation and robotics we will reduce competitiveness compared to key competitors [who are using robotics and automation] which will certainly result in job loss as the economy realigns.
Tharsus: Is it fair to say that the UK appears to be lagging behind our peers such as Germany and France in creating successful robotics companies? Why do you think this is? As Chair of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Advisory Board under the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), which areas should the UK focus on to improve robotics development/innovation?
David Bisset: We have some very healthy and innovative robotics companies in the UK and the numbers are comparable to France and Germany. We have fewer well-established robotics companies because we have lost out on the industrial robotics market. At issue is ensuring that innovative UK SMEs can grow to mid-caps. This is also a European-wide problem. In addition, there are many spinouts and a good number of incubators in the UK that will generate successful SMEs over time. However, more can always be done. There are two key factors: access to funding and access to expertise.
Access to expertise is critical -whether that is about technology, regulation, access to markets, access to testing or regulatory advice – it is critical to ensure that small companies that are starting out get the right advice from the start. The Advisory Board has long argued for a RAS Catapult, or an equivalent industrially-focused institute to complement the other Catapults and provide a bridge between academia and industry. Robotics has very broad cross-sector impact and the sectors where this impact will occur will need support in its development and deployment, as they would with any other major shift in technology.
>Two prospective roboticists competing in this years Ferrovial Challenge.
Tharsus: What careers and/or training should we focus on if we’re trying to ensure long-term employment so that the UK can take a lead in robotics and exist harmoniously with robots in the future?
David Bisset: Critical to this is spreading automation within UK mid-cap and SME manufacturing. The government objectives of raising competitiveness can only be achieved through increased automation. Training is needed to ensure that traditional SME and mid-cap manufacturers understand the benefit of automation and robotics and can start to deploy systems. This will require training across the skill spectrum and showcases to highlight how the new technology will impact on competitiveness.
From an education perspective, we have a lot of work to do in schools to try and raise the profile of both STEM and STEAM syllabuses. STEAM specifically. We desperately need more creatives with a good technical underpinning. Historically, we’ve seen a split between the creatives and the scientists/engineers since the Victorian era, and it’s important for us to glue this back together. We’re probably wasting around 50% of the UK’s talent through this disconnect.
Tharsus: Trials have recently taken place in Finland and the Netherlands to employ a system based on the principles of Universal Basic Income. UBI has been suggested as a solution in the future when automation has taken over a significant proportion of jobs currently carried out by humans. What are your thoughts on the concept of Universal Basic Income?
David Bisset: The assumption that automation will take over a significant portion of jobs has to be challenged. More likely that this will only impact some sectors and that the impact on those sectors will be balanced by increased competitiveness creating new jobs. There will be an impact on jobs in the transition and some types of job will require new skills.
The flip side is that automation allows the outsourcing of bespoke manufacture and lowers the cost of access to the means of production. This allows individuals to manufacture and the internet allows them to sell globally. Introducing UBI is a disincentive to work. Social support is necessary and important for those that cannot or are unable to find work but the focus must remain on stimulating employment.
If it comes to pass that the majority of profits end up in the hands of a few large global manufacturers or service providers, then taxation and government regulation including monopoly control will need to be exercised to ensure an open market. Governments will always need to correct market failures. The Nuclear industry is a great example of this in action. Businesses are taxed per milli of radiation exposure in their employees. A very simple taxation policy that illustrates the mechanisms are there.
Tharsus: How close are we to needing a regulatory or ethics framework for robot development?
David Bisset: I think we’re fairly close. This is already being discussed and debated (there are about 5 or 6 UK EU associations that I know of trying to tackle this – right now), while mainly in the AI domain the case for Robotics is similar. There are already areas of application where AI can be used unethically, for example in ranking employees using automatically gathered KPIs e.g. in a call centre. Regulatory frameworks are in place around UAVs and autonomous cars and other application areas may also require them. Consumer law is probably strong enough for now but some areas such as elderly care may require additional regulation in the future.
Tharsus: The Chancellor Philip Hammond delivered some welcome news in his Autumn Statement in November on investment in R&D, notably the increase for robotics and AI and £390 million investment in future transport technology. What else do you think the UK government can do to stimulate the UK robotics and autonomous systems sector?
David Bisset: The UK needs to provide enabling activity that stimulates the market to develop and to provide an innovation supporting infrastructure. At issue is both developing SMEs so that they reach the market by providing market access, regulatory advice and access to testing and validation services. The prime focus needs to be on translation. The UK has excellent research and a good underlying innovation culture but lacks translation from ideas to market. In addition, the removal of EU funding in the coming years will create holes in the UK research base as some particular areas have been exclusively funded through Europe. The UK government through the research councils and Innovate UK need to ensure there is continuity of funding as the access to grants from the EU reduces and is eventually removed.
Tharsus: What are the main challenges robotics companies in the UK are facing today? E.g. is it lack of investment, lack of skills, or is it a technology gap between what robots can do today and the applications we need them to fill?
David Bisset: There is a lack of investment, it is still less risky to invest in an internet start-up than in a robotics company because of the investment needed in manufacturing and the cost of prototyping and approvals. Outsourcing of manufacture is critical to reducing risk and support for testing, validation and approval will also reduce technical risk. Each of these should lower the investment risk making robotics a safer investment.
Tharsus: There’s a lot of industry news being bullish about robotics taking over various sectors, from agriculture to surgery, warehousing to self-driving cars. Which markets in particular do you think will be most impacted by robotics?
David Bisset: It will vary dramatically. Agriculture and the food production and distribution industries will see some disruption caused by robotics relatively soon. Sticking with the agriculture sector; greenhouses and high-value fruit and veg production will experience significant impact – driven mainly by immigration restrictions. Healthcare in terms of intra-logistics within hospitals, but possibly only in new builds. Construction industry may see some interesting developments in the next few years. Non-road transport, UAV and water-based transport are more likely to see rapid advances than road transport. Mining is already using autonomy.
>A Robotic product that Tharsus have developed and are now manufacturing for a leader in warehouse automation technology.
Tharsus: Looking to the year ahead, what type of robotics / autonomous systems do you think will cause most disruption in 2017
David Bisset: Media hype is probably more likely to cause disruption than actual applications in 2017. This is the early part of the growth curve where expectation outstrips application.
By 2020 we will have seen huge disruption in manufacturing jobs – most of which will be under the bonnet. But again, this is not going to be a rapid revolution, it’s a slow burn.
Tharsus: When will the general public start to notice?
David Bisset: It’s going to happen in three phases. Phase 1 (0-5 years) is the adoption by industry – this is where we are currently, today the sight of a robot in the street causes everyone to stop and stare. Phase 2 (5-10 years) is when the general public will first start to notice and robotics will start to complement their lives. Phase 3 (10-15 years) is when people will stop noticing because the impact driven by robotics becomes ubiquitous, they just seem like any other piece of technology and will have entered into the fabric of society.
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