April 25, 2017      

The British and U.S. news media have issued repeated warnings about robotics and artificial intelligence threatening jobs, but one expert says that’s a gross oversimplification. Yes, U.K. automation faces some significant challenges, including a dearth of commercial investment, a talent shortage, and its exit from the EU. But there are ways for British and European robotics to overcome these challenges, according to one expert.

David Bisset is one of the leading advisers on robotics for the British and EU governments. The former lecturer and head of robotics research at Dyson Ltd. began studying electronics at London Kings College in 1979 and then completed his Ph.D. at the University of Kent in 1987.

In 2012, Bisset was one of the primary authors of the European Strategic Research Agenda and chaired the domestic robotics committee of EUROP. He is now the road-mapping expert for euRobotics and chair of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group (RAS-SIG AB).

In this interview with John Hannah, Tharsus Group‘s RAS lead, Bisset reflects on the progress of the robotics industry and the U.K.’s positioning within it.

Hannah: It’s no secret that robotics is one of the most hotly contested topics at the moment. Why do you think this is? Is this just hype, or will we see the robot revolution imminently?

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.

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 publicly 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.

Hannah: 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. How do you view these concerns when set against the desire to increase productivity and support an aging workforce?

U.K. automation should be understood in the larger context, says expert David Bisset.

Social change is coming from robotics, notes David Bisset, but there is time to prepare.

Bisset: Firstly, it is important to realize 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 report clearly states that it’s 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 … which will certainly result in job loss as the economy realigns.

Hannah: Is it fair to say that the U.K. automation appears to be lagging behind 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, which areas should the U.K. focus on to improve robotics development/innovation?

Bisset: We have some very healthy and innovative robotics companies in the U.K., 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 U.K. automation SMEs [small and midsize enterprises] can grow to mid-caps. This is also a Europe-wide problem. In addition, there are many spinouts and a good number of incubators in the U.K. 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 RAS 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.

Hannah: What careers or training should we focus on if we’re trying to ensure long-term employment so that the U.K. automation can take the lead and people can exist harmoniously with robots in the future?

Bisset: Critical to this is spreading automation within U.K. mid-cap and SME manufacturing. The government objectives of raising competitiveness can only be achieved through increased automation.

U.K. automation requires STEAM training

More STEAM training would help U.K. automation spread to SMEs, says Bisset.

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 [science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math] 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.

Hannah: 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 this concept?

Bisset: The assumption that automation will take over a significant portion of jobs has to be challenged. More likely, 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.

Hannah: Chancellor Philip Hammond delivered some welcome news in his autumn statement on investment in R&D, notably the increase for robotics and AI and £390 million [$500 million] investment in future transport technology. What else do you think the U.K. government can do to stimulate U.K. automation?

Bisset: The U.K. needs to provide enabling activity that stimulates the market to develop and to provide an innovation-supporting infrastructure. At issue is 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 U.K. 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 U.K. research base, as some particular areas have been exclusively funded through Europe. The U.K. government, through the research councils and Innovate UK, needs to ensure there is continuity of funding as the access to grants from the EU reduces and is eventually removed.

More on European and U.K. Automation and Jobs:

Hannah: What are the main challenges that U.K. automation companies are facing today? Is it lack of investment, a lack of skills, or is it a technology gap between what robots can do today and the applications we need them to fill?

Bisset: There is a lack of investment. It is still less risky to invest in an Internet startup 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.

Note: For the full interview, visit Tharsus.co.uk.