Economy & Policy

The robots are coming – to lend a hand at work

Diminutive droid R2-D2 zips around the screen in the Star Wars movies, repairing machines, taking orders and saving the day. Enduring the harsh void of space and surviving alien swamps, the bleeping and whistling automaton provides Luke Skywalker with much needed company, too.

Unlikely as it may seem, this could be a sight near you soon, as robots become an increasingly mainstream part of the British economy, doing jobs traditionally done by humans. A robot being developed by Ocado aims to do something similar. Called SecondHands, it looks more like C-3PO, and aims to assist technicians repairing other machines in the online supermarket’s automated warehouses.

The idea is that the human worker can give verbal instructions to the robot, asking it to unscrew a cover, hold a component or manoeuvre with the required equipment. In time, SecondHands should learn to anticipate the technician’s needs on routine repairs and even do some of the basic work itself. As robots become more prevalent, the ability to repair each other will be vital. It should boost productivity dramatically – but also raise questions as to the future of work and the role of people in providing goods and services.

Another sci-fi lookalike comes from a smaller outfit called The Shadow Robot Company. It specialises in machines that replicate the human hand – as much of the world has been built for people, robots must become capable of nimble human movements if they are to take on more tasks. One of its newer models works when a human operator wears a glove filled with electronic sensors.

This is connected to a robot hand that mimics the movements as closely as possible. The effect is akin to that seen in Avatar, in which soldiers climb into fighting suits that copy the driver’s movements. Usually the glove’s operator is in the same room as the robot, but there is no reason it cannot be used at distances. The prospect of using a hand at a safe distance holds tantalising possibilities for dangerous jobs that require human dexterity.

Indeed, the Ministry of Defence is interested in using it for bomb disposal, keeping soldiers at a safe distance while maintaining their ability to work delicately. Commercially, the oil and gas industry and the nuclear sector could become clients. It means making the kit water-safe or nuclear resistant, matching the robots to the problems.

The company has received investment from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to work on problems around nuclear decommissioning, for example, potentially sending robots instead of people into radioactive environments. “We don’t know what we can do with our technologies yet in that area, but what we do know is that it is worth trying it,” says Rich Walker, The Shadow Robot Company’s managing director, noting that it is a highly speculative project.

“Nuclear decommissioning is a really important project to tackle – it is not going to go away, and it is going to cost the country a lot of money. The official figure for decommissioning the UK legacy is £100bn and I don’t know anyone who does not think that it is going to go up. If you can shave 1pc off that, it is £1bn.”

Beyond the speculative research, the immediate next step is to sell the robots to factories and warehouses, expanding their use to bigger swathes of the economy. Combining human levels of dexterity with cameras and machine learning technology, the plan is to replace people on dull but technologically tricky tasks such as handling objects of varying shapes on a production line.

While Mr Walker hopes to sell his mechanical hands to solve specific problems in companies’ processes, other firms have taken a larger scale approach. Ocado has built an automated warehouse in Andover to serve its core business.

Traditionally, online grocery sales work like normal shopping trips – a worker goes around a shop with a trolley, bags up the orders and takes them to the van. But at Ocado’s Andover site a giant grid sits on crates, with swarms of robots zipping across the surface. These pick up crates and take them to a worker who removes the required item to fill the order. With multiple robots moving at any one time, an order of 50 items can be packed in five minutes – a huge efficiency gain.

“It is about the ability to scale these facilities up and down, and it is about how fast we can pick an order because of the swarming nature of these robots. It is about the fact we fill the 3D cube of the warehouse to within 60cm (24in) of the roof beams,” says Paul Clarke, chief technology officer at Ocado. “We’re filling our warehouses with goods, not air.”

That still leaves Ocado with a substantial human workforce – developing machines, packing bags and driving vans. As the warehouse allows it to serve more customers, that means more deliveries and more jobs. But it is looking to make the system more automated, and is developing a human hand robot that is sufficiently adaptable and sensitive to pick up delicate items and transfer them to a carrier bag, without squashing the other food already packed. An alternative is a sucker cup – to continue the sci-fi comparisons, it is not dissimilar to the plunger of a Dalek from Doctor Who – which seeks to gently pick up and move individual items.

The system could move wholesale to other companies, too. Ocado has struck a deal to use the set-up with Morrisons, and is building a complete automated warehouse in France for retailer Groupe Casino. And the system is even easier to apply to less sensitive goods that do not need such careful handling or temperature control. Even orders are becoming more automatic, cutting down the customer’s role in the process. “You can hit one button and we predict what we think you want, fill your basket with that, and you can tweak it,” says Mr Clarke. “Most do tweak them, but some people just allow us to get it as right as we can.”

This could be the basis for a revolution in the retail and logistics industries. If and when driverless cars are ever launched on to the UK’s roads in any large numbers, it could eventually be possible for every step of the order, right down to the delivery, to be processed by machines.

Ocado is not alone in this. Amazon uses algorithms to select the best box for a parcel, based on the size of the contents but also its place in the delivery schedule. By selecting boxes that fill a van perfectly, it reduces the number that move around and break in transit. And Ikea is attempting to create robots that assemble furniture for customers.

These all raise questions of the future role of the human workforce. The jobs market is tight at the moment, with record employment and low rates of joblessness in the UK. When it is hard to find staff, companies are increasingly tempted to make investments in new labour-saving technology. But if whole classes of job are replaced by a new wave of robots, those workers who are directly affected are likely to worry.

%Robots have not stopped British workers getting jobsSource: ONSUnemployment rate19801990200020102.557.51012.5Powered by Highcharts Cloud

“While some argue that technology, such as artificial intelligence, may replace labour and further depress wages, history shows no such long-term effect,” says Jim Reid, a strategist at Deutsche Bank. “Arguably, the pace of today’s technological development is as fast as it has ever been, yet the developed world is close to full employment. Growth, then, will likely continue to find demand for workers, even if it is in new areas.”

Mr Clarke believes that this means a total overhaul of the education system is necessary. “I do not mean teaching kids to code, I mean fundamentally rethinking the education system from the ground up. How do we prepare the next generation for this smarter, more automated world in which they live?” he says. “It is about teaching students that reinvention is a meta-skill that they will have to learn – almost like taking the mid-life crisis and making it a positive skill, because they are going to go through multiple reinventions in their careers. Goal-setting, creative skills, collaborations – these will not in any way become obsolete in the near or the far future.”

Perhaps those pupils will have a robotic teacher in the classroom.

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