By Rhys Davies, product manager for robotics, Snapcraft and Ubuntu Appliances at Canonical, the publisher of Ubuntu
The year was 1923. Forty-two thousand people in Cincinnati signed a petition to force all cars in the city to have governing devices that would shut off the engine at 25 miles per hour.
The proposal was defeated in an election referendum, but it illustrates the anxiety and suspicion that the automobile ran into around the world soon after its introduction. Some people just thought horses were better and safer.
History is littered with examples of initial skepticism around radically new technologies. When the operatorless elevator was invented in the late 19th century, many people were terrified. People in the 1930s worried telephones would electrocute them.
So it comes as no surprise that one of today’s game-changing innovations – robots – have faced the same kind of fear.
Whether it is movies like The Terminator, The Matrix, and 2001: A Space Odyssey that feature malevolent machines bent on world domination, or studies finding that a substantial number of people are paranoid about robots taking over their jobs, it sometimes seems that robot technology has advanced faster than our minds can get comfortable with it.
An interesting thing about new technologies, though: The most important ones soon prove themselves to be useful and valuable in myriad ways, the trepidation dissipates, and we end up taking them for granted as integral parts of our everyday lives.
This is a trend that has repeated itself over and over again through the centuries, and I am confident we are witnessing this progression now with robotics.
As I write this, robots have already become an indispensable part of the manufacturing industry and are quickly moving into other environments such as healthcare, hospitality, energy, agriculture, and warehousing.
And two crises in the last 20 years, in particular, have served to accelerate the development and adoption of robots in powerful ways.
First – 9/11. Small, portable robots were used in the disaster response after 9/11. It was a relatively new application that showed the world what the technology was capable of under practical constraints, and this galvanized new entrepreneurial and academic activity to expand the horizons of robots as real-world problem solvers.
9/11 spawned other innovations as well – most designed to make us safer – but robotics may be the best example of one that spread in new directions because of the crisis.
Think drones, that is, robots that fly. You’d be hard pressed to find a reference to them pre-9/11, yet here we are today with drones delivering books at our doorstep and supplying life-saving medicines around the world.
Second – there’s Covid-19. Robots have been used to automate laboratory research, disinfect hospitals, and even protect healthcare workers from the virus.
They’ve delivered medication and test supplies to Ghana and other remote regions. Singapore deployed a Boston Dynamics’ popular robot dog Spot to patrol public parks and broadcast messages to people in an effort to enforce social distancing.
Beyond pandemic-related applications, robots have helped reduce strain on the supply chain by automating and streamlining order fulfillment. Amazon has kept up with its tight delivery commitments in large part due to the integration of robots in its warehouses.
Covid-19 has brought a different scary movie genre into the limelight – the one with epidemics and the fight to save the future of humanity.
Fortunately, in this run of real-life Hollywood, robots have been our friends. It is impossible not to wonder what else robots could be capable of were society to go all in on their use.
Business leaders are asking what role robots can play in future-proofing against another health emergency or some other upheaval that prevents employees from physically accessing the workplace.
How can increased reliance on robots safeguard and streamline our businesses on an ongoing basis for mechanically-oriented tasks? Robots, after all, don’t need social distancing.
Global crises tend to spawn new technological approaches. Some of the best innovations that advance mankind are born out of sheer discomfort rather than a time of comfort. Emergencies force us to change our perspectives and open up to new ideas and ways of doing things.
Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.
Look at how many people thought a totally remote workforce couldn’t be successful. After it became a sudden reality for so many companies, most found strength to adapt that they may not have known they had and invented new processes to maintain and encourage collaboration. As a result, employees have maintained or even improved their productivity.
Again, all this demonstrates how psychology rather than technology readiness often is the primary barrier to new technology adoption. Robot technology is getting smarter all the time.
The question is, how can we most effectively take advantage if it?
And I’ll answer the question I know you’re about to ask: What about people’s jobs? The fact is, robots have already gone mainstream in some far-reaching industries.
The next time you receive your speedy Amazon shipment, remember that the company has 200,000 mobile robots working in its warehouses, alongside hundreds of thousands of human employees.
Increasing the use of robots doesn’t necessarily have to mean that jobs disappear. Instead, it means a redeployment of human workers to the intellectual rather than mechanical tasks that humans excel at.
Robotics is one of the most exciting fields in cutting-edge technology at this point, whose potential we’re only now just starting to realize. So there’s that to be thankful about, given the state of our times.