Invasion. Takeover. These are the form of words which have been bandied about in news headlines about robotics and artificial intelligence in the previous few years. The coverage has been almost relentlessly negative, specializing in the threat to jobs, squeezing out the human component. While such potential is there, if robotics and AI do grow to be a threat, then we consider this could be a threat of society’s own selecting.

The market impact of robotics and autonomous systems is estimated to be US$9.8 to US$19.3 trillion a yr by 2025, but a recent report from the Sutton Trust stressed concerns that this may lead to a two-tier society with:

An elite high-skilled group dominating the upper echelon of society and a lower-skilled, low-income group with limited prospects of up-skilling and hence upward mobility, leading to a broken social ladder.

Technical innovation has all the time had an impact on the established order and stirred fears of what change might bring. Currently the fear is that the owners of the technique of production will grow to be wealthy, while other will see their jobs and livelihoods taken by robots.

Living in a connected era

The revolution in robotics and autonomous systems has already begun. We live in a connected era where inexpensive technology interacts with us and with other natural and physical assets in the environment, turning data into information for a worldwide audience.

The Siemens facility in Amberg, Germany, is an example of a ‘lights out’ manufacturing plant.
Siemens, Author provided (no reuse)

AI has the flexibility to bring expert knowledge to the lay person remotely, that’s, anywhere on the earth, and support them of their endeavours like a virtual mentor, customising information in a useable format they’ll engage with. And by giving people this data it offers unprecedented opportunities starting from garden shed innovators getting access to manufacturing processes which might previously been beyond their reach, to the potential for wealth creation in countries which can be most in need of it.

For example, AI helps communities in developing nations implement local renewable energy systems by providing intelligent automation and monitoring – almost like an internet “doctor”, ensuring the system is “healthy” and dealing properly. This means communities not only gain access to inexpensive and sustainable energy but can even engage in trading of any surplus energy to other consumers or utility firms.

But to attain these advantages society must be ready to know them. Governments, business and academia all have a responsibility to arrange the present and future workforce for the approaching and dramatic changes to come back, and society as a complete has to purchase into this latest industrial revolution.

Contrary to the perceived apocalyptic scenario, we consider the longer term is all about people: in spite of everything, the worth of technologies is within the knowledge we humans embed inside them and the way we interact with them, not the machines themselves. For that human-based scenario to work we want an agile, future-ready workforce, able to embrace a data-driven world in partnership with robotics and autonomous systems.

An existing example is the Siemens “lights out” manufacturing plant in Amberg, Germany, which is automated to the purpose where some lines can run unsupervised for several weeks. This is viewed as a stepping stone towards a completely self-organising factory that may allow the manufacture of highly customisable products. Yet this automated factory has 1,150 employees supporting it, just with different roles focused on programming, monitoring and machine maintenance.

The latest industrial revolution

Since the primary industrial revolution people have generally needed to follow the technology, moving to the large cities or from developing nations to developed countries, to enhance their access to the opportunities offered by technology.

At Heriot-Watt we’re embracing each the latest technological opportunities and the challenges that they convey. Our work involves engaging with government and industry around a people first ethos via our Centre of Embedded Innovation (CEI) concept, which is reaching out to all of our communities to enable access to the newest advances in data evaluation, robotics and autonomous systems.

The rise of robots in industry means we must have a look at latest ways of working and collaborating with them.

Studies by the Sutton Trust have indicated that previously decade within the UK, the gap between wealthy and poor in society has increased, with inequality now at a record high. The CEI seeks to address this societal imbalance through making opportunity more equal, during which education plays the important thing role, and helping to create a brand new “embedded” industrial revolution which supports business and economic growth, transferring knowledge and resources to those communities most susceptible to poverty.

Wealth creation and innovation should be centred on people to attain a prosperous future that’s inclusive throughout society. It’s also clear that the speed of this industrial revolution warrants a transformative change in strategy through government, industry and academia.

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