As we enter the golden age of robotics, the fear that robots will take human jobs has slowly spread. Darren Halford considers if our jobs are really at risk
Since manufacturers introduced the first robot arms onto assembly lines in the early 1960s, the fear that they will take human jobs has slowly spread. And it's true; many jobs have already been delegated to robots, including assembly, farming, surgery and even vacuuming.
This speed of technological change has led Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzwell, to estimate that robots will, ‘reach human levels of intelligence by 2029’.
For many, the idea of artificial intelligence surpassing human intellect is a daunting thought. While certainly not the first example of evil artificial intelligence in pop culture, HAL the homicidal computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey is a prime example of the recurring ‘robot uprising’ theme we see depicted in film and literature.
However, even in the far-flung worlds of science fiction, robots have proven to be predominately helpful - just as they have in manufacturing. From traditional six-axis, SCARA and Cartesian robots to Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) robots generally create jobs; increasing the overall number of positions available.
One of the automation trends for 2015, AGVs are mobile robots that navigate independently using magnets, lasers, vision and geoguidence and are used commonly in industrial settings to transport materials and goods in a factory or warehouse. AGVs can increase efficiency, ultimately reducing costs and, because of this, their market is growing at a rapid pace.
Unlike automated guided vehicles, more complex, manufacturing robots are usually confined to operating inside cages known as robotic work cells. These physical barriers protect human workers from potential accidents and the sheer power and speed of malfunctioning robotics. If you've ever seen a robot at a trade show try to return to zero without back up in the event of power cut, you will know exactly what I mean.
Despite this restriction, advances in programming mean that some robots can now operate, without enclosures, alongside humans on the factory floor. This integration revolutionises the job roles of both robot and human workers. This increases the productivity of menial tasks and frees human workers to focus on jobs that are more sophisticated.
Although still in its early stages, this man-machine collaboration is a huge step towards humans and robots working harmoniously together.
Cell free robotics was a theme at this year's Hannover Messe, which also featured ABB's wonderfully cool YuMi, a two-armed collaborative assembly assistant that can see and feel its way around an application. It has soft, padded arms that allow it to interact safely with its human counterparts.
There is no denying that some very menial labour will be replaced with technology. In fact, Deloitte and the University of Oxford predict that robots could ultimately replace ten million unskilled workers.
However, throughout history, technology has created thousands of new jobs while eliminating old ones. Consider the first half of the twentieth century, where a large percentage of working Londoners were limited to work in manufacturing and heavy industry.
While some might argue that IT and communications led to a decline in heavy industry, others would say it freed workers to ‘break the habit’ and pursue a wide range of vocations outside of the factory. This, in turn, established London as the cosmopolitan metropolis and services hub that it is today.
The first robots might have been installed in factories in the 1960s, but we are only now truly entering the golden age of robotics. It will open doors to new industries and generate new roles requiring creativity, judgment, empathy and a thirst for innovation – human skills which robots can't yet replicate. So it's not time to worry about HAL and his compatriots just yet; your job is safe.
Darren Halford is with European Automation.