Forget humans - it's the industrial robots that will change the world

Forget humans – it’s the industrial robots that will change the world

When writer Simon Ings compiled a massive compendium of 100 of the most intriguing stories written about robots, he was struck by one thing they had in common: how wrong they were all.

In the caffeine-filled fantasies of science fiction writers and filmmakers, robots are almost always depicted as human-like creations that can help, care for, have sex with humans and, when they feel especially evil, finish off humans. But the truth is that humanoid robots remain lousy at interacting with us in the physical world in the diverse and instinctive ways that humans do.

What looks like a human robots Turns out he’s good at performing boring, practical, repetitive tasks like regulating road traffic – which doesn’t offer such great entertainment. The first such robot, later known as a traffic light, was unveiled near the Houses of Parliament in London in 1868.

By no means were we expecting friends, companions, or pets, Ings wrote in his book. We are the robots. “What we got is the infrastructure.”

And this is something to think about when we are distracted by the emergence of robots that are more realistic than humans, which are very similar to science fiction. Earlier this month, amid the usual hype, Elon Musk revealed Tesla’s first humanoid robot called Optimus.

With a length of 173 cm and a weight of 73 kg, the Optimus robot was designed to mimic a human. But Many robotics scientists were frustrated By her job, noting that she was less impressive than Honda in some ways ASIMO Robot Who Played Football With then US President Barack Obama in 2014.

Similarly, the Ai-Da the robot who submitted evidence to the House of Lords Committee Earlier this month, it had to be restarted mid-session for it to make sense (a trait, some would say, it has in common with some British politicians recently).

Human-like robots may generate media coverage and unleash the public’s imagination, but they will never change our economies — or even make a decent cup of tea. By contrast, the past year has seen an extraordinary increase in the number of industrial and service robots installed in factories, warehouses and workplaces around the world: this is sure to have a much greater impact. In 2021, more than 517,000 new industrial robots came into operation – a 31 percent increase from the previous year – bringing the total global inventory to 3.5 million robots.

The International Federation of Robotics noted in its report: “The use of robotics and automation is growing at an astonishing speed.” Annual report for this month. The most enthusiastic about industrial robotics is found in Asia, which accounted for 74 percent of all deployments last year. China topped the field with a 51 percent increase, followed by Japan, the United States and South Korea.

The UK was a rare exception, recording a 7 per cent drop, leaving the country well behind other advanced economies. While the German car industry has installed 1,500 robots per 10,000 employees, the comparable figure in Britain is only 824.

This global increase in robot adoption is being driven by several trends: the demand for more miniature and high-tech products, the disruption to global supply chains due to the Covid pandemic and the drive to remanufacture, along with widespread labor shortages.

“We are sitting on a kind of demographic time bomb in many countries. We don’t have enough people who can do things manually,” says Patrick Schwarzkopf, IFR Executive Board Member.

Schwarzkopf says the debate over the use of robots is developing rapidly. While some economists have previously warned that AI-enabled robots will kill a large number of human jobs, policy makers now see an urgent need to accelerate automation to fill remaining gaps in the workforce by retiring from the baby boomers.

Even with current high immigration rates, Germany’s workforce of 45 million is set to shrink by 4-6 million by 2035, he says.

This suggests that our societies must become much more creative than most science fiction writers in imagining how best to collaborate with robots. Instead of constantly comparing them to humans, we should tap into their complementary capabilities.

As roboticist Cynthia Young has suggested, our obsession with human-like robots that replicate what humans can already do is an emphasis on form over function. Much better for the job to inform the form. Start with the human need and reverse engineer the robot to do what it does best.

john.thornhill@ft.com

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