THE ROBOTS ARE COMING…To Save Us
| By: Travis Schneider, Business Development Manager
As someone who has spent his entire professional career working in robotics and automation, I can say with confidence that 2019 was definitely a year in which public opinion shifted. This past year had no shortage of articles, videos, even interviews with presidential candidates talking about how the looming threat of robotics and A.I. that will soon topple the world. According to many media outlets, robotics and A.I. had become synonymous with an economic “big bad wolf” coming to rob hardworking people of their jobs. Popular culture has reinforced this narrative, with sci-fi T.V. shows and movies inflating the capabilities of robotics today.
In reality, these images and portrayals could not be further from the truth. Multiple studies have concluded that the adoption of robotics actually creates jobs and economic prosperity. A 2018 study by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) concluded that robots complement and augment, rather than substitute, human labor.* Additionally, the study concluded that implementing robotics raised both the quality of work and the wages of those fulfilling new tasks.
Groups that have adopted robotics have improved their productivity and the quality of products produced, all while eliminating many ergonomic challenges that have plagued manual operations. Many Asian countries have looked to robotics with great success. Japan has a rapidly aging demographic; as a result they have turned to robotics out of necessity to support their manufacturing sector. South Korea’s economy is heavily dependent upon consumer electronics manufacturing, which is a cutthroat and cost-sensitive market. Here again, its factories are heavily dependent upon robotics, both for the movement of materials and production of these devices. In recent history, China has become a robotics juggernaut, deploying more robots than any other country throughout the world—despite having the largest available workforce.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has exposed just how much our critical infrastructure still depends upon human labor. Without this essential labor, our standard of living will quickly deteriorate. My hat goes off to those who risk their health on a daily basis in their line of work, be it health care, service or manufacturing. Despite this show of courage, it begs the question: Could there be a better way?
I personally believe that robotic technology holds the promise to support many of essential tasks. An obvious example would be to focus on developing flexible manufacturing systems using robotics or additive manufacturing to rapidly retool the production of critical products like personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. Perhaps a less obvious example would be the robotic augmentation of labor required to maintain our grid. Without an extensive network of people maintaining the U.S. grid, our lights would go out, furnaces would stop heating our homes—and grocery stores would no longer be able to refrigerate our food supplies. Critically, hospitals would eventually run out of the power required to keep life-sustaining equipment functioning. Robotic systems could augment health care workers by tending to patients who may have contracted the COVID-19 virus or other contagious diseases, thus limiting the exposure of these brave health care workers on the front lines.
The good news is that human-like robotic technology has come a long way—and these applications could become a reality soon. The best time to begin building these systems would have been before the start of this pandemic, but the next best time is right now.
I’m hopeful this pandemic will serve as a catalyst for people throughout the globe to see robotic technology in a different light—as a critical technology that supports humanity, rather than as a threat to our existence. Furthermore, I am hopeful it underscores the importance of investing in and accelerating our adoption of robotics to both maintain our standard of living and improve humanity’s resilience to subsequent pandemics or other disasters.