“30% of existing UK jobs could face automation over the next 15 years” – is quite a headline, taken from the latest UK Economic Outlook report by PwC, which has received widespread coverage in the UK press today.
Chris Roberts, Head of Industrial Robotics, shares his thoughts in this video blog.
There have been quite a few articles in the news recently about robotics, automation and how that’s destroying jobs and taking over the world and I thought I’d share some of my ideas on those subjects.
I think the first thing to say is that nothing’s going to happen overnight, robotics projects, automation projects, they’re big complex things that involve lots of different disciplines working together. They don’t happen quickly, for example one of the first robotics project that we did that we could talk about was a fruit picking robot, and that took us six months just to persuade this robot to pick up and orange without dropping it. If something as simple as that takes six months imagine how long it takes to do a much bigger more complex thing. And the reason it takes so long it because – robots whilst they’re good at certain tasks are quite brittle, it’s very hard to take a robot that’s specialised on one task and transfer that learning and specialisation to a new slightly different task. Whereas for humans that’s the sort of thing we find really easy. If I taught a human to pick up an orange then when we moved onto the next project where we need to pick up slightly different shaped objects from a slightly different container the human would find it really easy, but when we try to do it with a robot we had to start almost from scratch. Not a single line of code or mechanical design was reused between these two projects.
Although robotics as a whole is expanding its reach each individual robot can still only do one task, is still best at a single task.
And that cover another difference between humans and robots, the categories of tasks that we find easy, aren’t the categories of tasks that robots find easy. In fact the opposite is more often true, that something we find easy like walking upstairs or opening doors is something that a robot really struggles to do. And at the end of the day nobody wants a robot that can just climb stairs, they want a robot that can climb stairs and then deliver something at the end of it or perform a task. And getting a robot to do multiple things at once is really hard.
So I’m really excited for the next few years in robotics. It’s definitely true that there is change coming, new things are happening, there’s all sorts of different technologies that are coming together to let us attack new tasks with automation. And I think there probably will be some disruption to jobs, but only at the most menial level of jobs, not the jobs that people aspire to do, or aspire for their children to do. Anything involving creativity, or flexibility, that’s still a long way of being automated. In fact robots work as job creation engines as well. I know for a fact that Amazon have lots of fulfillment warehouses in different countries with different level of automation, and they’ve discovered that the places where there’s more automation leads to more jobs rather than fewer, because the factory becomes more efficient there’s more of the high value jobs that robots can’t do, so they employ more people to do it.
So at Cambridge Consultants we’re doing lots of great robotics projects at the moment and I think in the future we’re going to some even better ones and I can’t wait for that to start off.