When you want to talk to someone about robotics and automation, especially in an industrial context, who better to talk to than an expert from Japan? Not wishing to compound any stereotypes, the “land of the rising sun” has shown itself to be an early adopter of many, possibly all, advanced technologies for many decades now.
When George Devol and Joseph Engleberger invented the first industrial robotic arm in around 1950, Japan was the most enthusiastic buyer of their product, the Unimate. Devol and Engleberger had found business tough in the US, where there was a general perception – perpetuated by Hollywood science fiction films – of robots as being an otherworldly, threatening menace. Which they are, of course.
It’s inevitable that robots will take over the world and more or less enslave us, but when have humans ever listened to warnings of our impending doom?
There was a man who used to walk along Oxford Street, in London for many years during the 1990s, with big white message boards strapped to his front and back. The message he carried in big black letters was, “The end of the world is nigh”. Did anyone pay any attention? Of course not. Proof, if it were needed, that we just don’t listen to people who can see the future and make it clear to us in black and white, until it’s too late.
Maybe he got the timing wrong, but that bloke was onto something.
Our world is ending, and the robot world is beginning. Should we be worried? Of course we should. But what can anyone do to stop the march of progress? Mass unemployment caused by increasing use of robotics and automation technologies, and let’s not even get into the frankly apocalyptic prospect of ubiquitous artificial intelligence running, ruling and possibly ruining our lives. What can anyone do against the overwhelming forces of human nature, the drive for progress, the greed, the lust for power and money, especially when it’s combined with such fascinating and alluring, not to mention lucrative, technology?
But maybe we shouldn’t worry too much. Maybe the robots come in peace. Maybe they just want to help us become more productive, give us more free time to enjoy our lives, sometimes known as unemployment. Maybe the change they will inevitably bring will be a gradual process, providing us with plenty of opportunity to adjust and adapt. And maybe we don’t have to study where the Luddites went wrong so we can do what they did, only better.
Whatever we decide, the societal upheavals heralded by the accelerated development of AI-based technologies are not only inevitable, they are already happening.
In this exclusive interview, Minoru Usui, president, Seiko Epson, gives Robotics and Automation News his views of the “transformative” effects of robotics on the world today, and looks forward to what dreams or nightmares may come.
Epson is one of the world’s largest robotics companies. The company has more than 50,000 robots installed around the world at last count, which was at least several months ago. Given that the past year has seen a huge hike in demand for industrial robots around the world, especially from China, Epson probably has much more than 50,000 robots installed globally by now.
In the UK, the company sells many SCARA and 6-axis robots. While Britain is fond of self-deprecation and much is made in the media of what some observers – mostly “loony lefties” – see as the deliberate decline of the manufacturing industry over the past few decades in favour of becoming a more service-oriented economy, mainly based on financial services, the fact is that the country is still one of the top 10 manufacturing nations in the world, with annual output valued at around $245 billion, according to government figures.
However, while it may be a top 10 manufacturing nation, the country is somewhere near number 20 in the global list of robot density, and this is one of the main reasons for the relatively low levels of productivity in UK manufacturing, according to the government’s Office of National Statistics.
From Minoru Usui’s point of view, the UK, much like other advanced economies, can gain huge benefits from adopting more robotics into the manufacturing sector. The world is changing, he said, and Britain could change along with it. Usui began his career at Epson in the late 1970s, which is about the time historians would probably say UK manufacturing jobs moved to lower-wage, developing nations, and large parts of Britain’s manufacturing industry started shutting down, throwing millions of workers into unemployment and the country into political and social chaos, culminating in the Winter of Discontent. But there is a chance that things can improve now, according to Usui.
“We’re living through an extremely transformative period, characterised by major geopolitical, economic and technological changes,” says Usui. “Shaped by these mega-trends, value chains are being redistributed as production centres move closer to market; often back toward developed nations as the global wage gap continues to shrink. The shift of manufacturing back to the US and European markets is well under way and robots can play a huge role in this re-shoring trend.”
One crucial factor in this possible reversal of manufacturing fortunes and employment prospects, says Usui, is the fact that robots are approximately the same price for everybody.
“Their cost being the same wherever they are used, robots can make a big difference in the spread of total labour costs in the UK and developed markets. In addition, robots are getting cheaper, more dexterous and easier to operate and could therefore help tackle the looming issue of labour shortage in the manufacturing industry. Above all they are capable of delivering improved productivity and can reduce the need for outsourcing.”
One perennial concern of British people is the cold weather. In the 1970s and even through the 80s, most people did not have central heating, often using coal to heat their homes – not because of post-modern aesthetics but because their toes were freezing. Bitterly cold winter weather made some jobs difficult, dangerous or even impossible. Even today, if there is any news that there may be a fuel shortage, something close to panic ensues and the government is placed under pressure to avert whatever catastrophe might occur.
Usui says the UK can get by with a little help from robots. They could play a critical role in ensuring that British people’s toes, and the toes of everyone around the world, are kept warm. And they have the potential to be even more helpful in other ways and in other industries.
He says: “In addition to manufacturing, robots are likely to play an important part in tackling global trends such as securities shortages – in particular fuel – and the ageing population.
“Autonomous robots come with the potential to handle a great number of tasks that require a precise, delicate touch, from food handling to managing dangerous or volatile substances. Longer term, robots will be suitable for deployment in high precision or high risk environments where humans cannot, or should not, operate.
“Power generation is a notoriously risky business – from mining to fracking to drilling for oil, to leveraging the opportunity of nuclear solutions – these industries have always had their risks. What if autonomous robots could take on the most dangerous of these tasks and be used to work in the most high risk locations – a nuclear reactor, for example? That possibility is approaching faster than you might think.”
Mining is no longer a large-scale activity in the UK, after Margaret Thatcher swung her formidable handbag and dealt the industry its final, decisive blow during her first term as prime minister, starting in 1979. The miners went on strike and the clash went on for around a decade in what was one of the defining political confrontations in the country’s modern history – lefty unions on one side, right-wing bosses on the other, Thatcher being one of the most right-wing leaders this country’s ever had.
To some it may seem the recent past in terms of time – it was only the 80s. But when you look at how the economy has changed, it’s difficult to imagine the coal industry being such a large and important employer and industry in the UK. These days, the talk is all about “digital Britain”, tech this and tech that. Silicon Square, Tech Triangle, Robot Roundabout. It’s a completely different place.
And it’s likely to change even more. The robots have only just now started to emerge in large numbers, ready to take over the world, having been isolated in factories for so long. They also have new connectivity technology, a robot religion if you will, called internet of things (IoT), which allows more than three robots to congregate at one time, something Thatcher may not have allowed.
Plus, Britain’s population, just like populations in Japan, Germany, the US and practically all advanced economies, is ageing. Around 10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old, according to government figures. That’s one in every six people. And the government is having to think about how to look after them long term, particularly if large corporations increasingly avoid paying taxes. The National Health Service might be free to end users, but it’s not cheap to maintain from the point of view of those who do pay their taxes.
Usui believes robots could be the revelation the world has been looking for. “My future vision sees the capabilities of robotics extending into areas like assistive care, with robots helping us to address the challenges of supporting an ageing population while reducing the cost implications – particularly when you consider their potential once connected to the internet of things.
“As robots, along with other technology products, become increasingly connected, collecting data from all around them and relaying it to the internet – as well as accessing and learning from data gathered by other machines – they will become a very real solution to supporting the service and care industries. This support will manifest in multiple ways, not only with basic manual tasks such as lifting and moving, but also more complex tasks such as measuring and sensing for environmental data, recording and reporting changes and fluctuations, and providing data based recommendations and initiating tasks to apply them.
“As they progress further to add artificial intelligence to their capacity to learn, they will be a key solution in providing services within the home and care facilities, alleviating resource and labour pressures and helping to improve service delivery and patient care.”
Clearly Usui does not think the robots will use the IoT to organise a revolution, or a global takeover. He doesn’t even think they’re clever enough.
“My belief is that robots will never be truly ‘intelligent’ – only ever artificially so – and will always rely on humans to ultimately programme and ‘drive’ them. Robots, regardless of how clever, will remain tools. That said, they are tools with enormous potential and power, and we must respect any technological advancement that has the potential to alter social dynamics. It is our responsibility to ensure that they drive positive change.
“I have no doubt that robots are destined to help us solve major societal issues such as labour and skills shortages and costs, and will finally realise their potential to release people from ordinary, dull or dangerous manual work, freeing more of us to concentrate on work that demands human intelligence. I have just as little doubt that they will be one of the keys to us solving numerous other fundamental global issues, relieving the pressure on our more finite resources.”
Usui has been working with robots for almost 40 years, so he should know what he’s talking about. He is obviously optimistic about the future, and probably imagines a world where man and machine will live as one.
But then, that guy with the sandwich board also knew what he was talking about, and I still say he was onto something.