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Robots – what do we want them for?

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I attended a thought-provoking session on robots at the London Chamber of Commerce. Can they fill the roles we don’t want to do ourselves?

Co-incidentally Bill Wong, Editor at recently shared this video, the Working Dog(bot), that combines many advanced technologies: machine vision, remote control, wireless links, cameras and software. Ghost Robotics have put all this together to create a robot with the characteristics of a well-trained dog. Working Dog(bot) is built for military and security markets where robots are used for tasks considered too dangerous for humans, such as bomb disposal and surveillance. Robots like this one could also help with environmental clean-up and hazardous search and rescue.

What about new applications for robots?

The promising new applications for robots will be the ones where they can perform a task more cheaply than people or where humans don’t want to do the work.

We are already familiar with robots that perform repetitive industrial processes. Automotive manufacturing is a good example or the product picking in Ocado’s automated warehouse system. Robots are attractive for these jobs because they can work reliably day and night and can be more efficient than humans. There are clear business cases for these applications because companies don’t want to pay people to perform tasks that a machine can do at a lower cost.

Robot Center is talking about new applications. They described a reception robot that would lead a visitor to the correct room in a large building and they demonstrated a hospitality robot that can deliver food and drinks to the customer’s  table. I can see this might be novel and efficient for quick service bars and restaurants, but other diners will always prefer personal service. I can’t imagine a robot discussing the customer’s favourite grape and what will go best with dinner! Except that with AI that will be possible too.

We still need humans

The demonstration provoked a lively discussion about the use of robots and how far they could really help to plug the hard-to-fill gaps in the labour market.

We know that the proportion of elderly people is growing and that it is hard to recruit skilled carers. In theory it’s possible that robots with sensors could  keep patients company in care homes and monitor their condition and medication, and there are already robots disguised as teddy bears that can monitor children in care settings.

This is clearly controversial. It made sense to use robots to sanitise hospital wards and care homes during the Pandemic, but the idea of using robots to provide other care was not popular. It’s unlikely that they could ever provide satisfactory companionship for housebound people and care home residents.

Yet, we may be on the cusp of the time when we’ll adopt robots for more mundane tasks that we don’t want to do ourselves. Thinking about the evolution of computers from mainframes in the 1970’s to the ubiquitous personal computer by the end of the 1980s, there could be a parallel. Perhaps the time has come for the largescale commercialisation of smaller robots. We are already using robotic hoovers and lawnmowers. Robots that mop the floor and do the housework could be on our Christmas list in future.

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