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Robotics – A Third Industrial Revolution, But Don’t Ignore the Social Challenges

April 4, 2013

Last night I went to the launch event for a new organisation in Bahrain called Ebtikar Association. It’s a not-for-profit foundation set up to promote innovation by bringing together scientists and entrepreneurs – innovators, the business skills and the money to turn ideas into intellectual property, and intellectual property into economic prosperity.

In a region whose cultural default is to expect governments to make all the moves, it’s a welcome development for Bahrain. And I wish Ebtikar the best of luck, even though I fear that it’s walking into a territory well-trodden by competing and overlapping interests.

It has some powerful sponsors, though. The patron, Mr Kamal Ahmed, is both the acting CEO of the national Economic Development Board, and the Minister of Transportation. The Minister gave an opening address endorsing the initiative, but not only that – he stayed for the whole event. This is significant, because at many events I have attended, the dignitaries show up for the cameras, make a few comments and then leave at the earliest possible opportunity.

I’m sure he will be glad that he did stay, because one of the main speakers gave an eye-opening presentation on robotics.

When I was invited to the event, I accepted on the basis that I should support any event that promotes innovation on the island. I wasn’t expecting to be impressed by a talk on robotics. For me, it was one of those yeah-yeah subjects. Yeah, everybody knows about robots, but I’m not a scientist – though I’m fascinated by science – and I probably took for granted the challenges and implications of the robotics industry.

That changed last night, thanks to Dr Jean-Christophe Baillie, the Chief Science Officer of the French company Aldebaran Robotics.

Jean-Christophe is one of those fearsomely bright products of France’s elite grande école system – in his case the École Polytechnique. But he doesn’t conform to the Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the typical French technocrat – starchy, obsessed with hierarchy, and prone to philosophical meanderings. He’s a scientist-cum-entrepreneur, and passionate about his subject.

He talked us through his career in robotics, from research, through starting his own company and ultimately selling the business to Aldebaran. One of his key messages was that in his own business he made two false starts that caused him to think again, before finally coming up with a product that led to him teaming up with a larger company.

That’s a message that needs to be taken on board in a culture that fears failure and, worse, blame for failure. It also goes against the grain of expectations of venture capitalists who demand multi-year business plans and clear visibility of the exit. I know from experience that it’s fine to start a business with a clear roadmap, but if you’re not flexible enough to change the roadmap as circumstances change, or because you discover that you were on the wrong track in the first place, you will quickly find that you don’t have a business.

But what really caught my attention was his walk-through of the current uses of robotics. He talked about his own invention, a device that enables you to function as an avatar as you remotely walk through a building, talk to people and watch what’s happening in an environment potentially thousands of miles from the real you. Then there was Nao, the humanoid robot with multiple uses in medicine and education – for example in the treatment of autistic children. Genuinely exciting stuff, even if the technology – both at the software and hardware levels – has a long way to go before it turns today’s science fantasy into reality.

Looking further afield, Jean-Christophe showed us other applications that are having a profound impact on the world of work and society in general – Amazon’s human-free warehouses, surgical robotics, automated agricultural devices and of course military robotics.

He avoided dwelling on the implications of the technology – his focus was on innovation and the tremendous commercial potential of his chosen field.

But what of the implications? The classic conversation on robotics is around whether eventually the robots will supercede us and start replicating of their own accord, as envisaged by Isaac Asimov in his novel I Robot. And how far we are from Kurzweil’s singularity – the point at which the machines we build are smarter than we are.

From a purely selfish point of view, I don’t see robots taking over the world as the big issue – I’ll be long gone by the time that happens, if it happens.

Of more immediate concern is the threat to social cohesion. When robots produce the food, make the products and manage the supply chains with minimal human intervention, we are effectively in a third industrial revolution. Just as the spinning jenny destroyed the cottage industries dedicated to weaving, and the computer eliminated a whole class of manual and clerical workers, robotics will make redundant millions of unskilled workers who till the land, build the roads and clean the streets.

You could ask why a Chinese farmer would use a machine to tend the paddy fields when he has an abundant source of cheap labour. The answer is obvious. He will make more money that way, and if he faces a squeeze on his margins because of competition and the demands of semi-monopolistic retailers, he will have no choice. Ask the farmers who supply the big supermarkets in the West.

As Jean-Christophe points out, the only way to mitigate the displacement of unskilled labour is by improving education systems in countries most vulnerable to the effects of mass unemployment. Fine, but we can’t all be knowledge workers, creators, facilitators, service providers and creatures of leisure.

Where robotics is potentially leading us is towards an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots. And what frightens me is that in the fastest-growing economies of the world and the biggest unskilled workforces – China and India for example – it will not be a question of robots eliminating humans, but of the have-nots rising up and trying to supplant or destroy the haves. The consequences could be increasing paranoia on the part of the haves as they try to preserve their privileged positions against the threat from the have-nots. And as a consequence, more authoritarianism, more surveillance and less respect for human rights.

So yes, robotics is leading us to an exciting and brave new world, but let’s not ignore the potential economic and social consequences of the coming third industrial revolution. Technical innovation is not only part of the story. We also need to work just as hard at social innovation. And that will be the really tough bit.

  1. Hitin permalink

    Yes indeed an amazing start. It was pleasure to be part such a good start. Thanks to Dr. Jean-Christophe for bringing NAO (robot) to the launch.

    • Thanks for the comment. I didn’t mention the robot itself, because I felt that he vision was even more exciting. S

  2. Helene permalink

    If you want to consider the social impact of robots on our society, I would advise you to read the works by Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist who actually works at MIT where she conducts research into the psychological and social consequences of robots as well as technology in general. I advise you to read “Alone together” where the first part of the book “The robotic moment” looks at social robots and how various humans react to them. Drop me an email and I’ll send you an article derived from the book

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