The potential of robotics and automation and the related technologies, namely artificial intelligence and machine learning, supporting the development of these capabilities are significant and it is very encouraging that the government have requested expert opinion about both the impact and opportunities these technologies offer. Acknowledgement must be given to the Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Special Interest Group, the strategy it published in 2014 and the governments response published in March 2015. The response states actions taken for each of the eight recommendations.

The Science and Technology Committee requested submissions covering the following four areas;

  • The implications of robotics and artificial intelligence on the future UK workforce and job market, and the Government’s preparation for the shift in the UK skills base and training that this may require.
  • The extent to which social and economic opportunities provided by emerging autonomous systems and artificial intelligence technologies are being exploited to deliver benefits to the UK.
  • The extent to which the funding, research and innovation landscape facilitates the UK maintaining a position at the forefront of these technologies, and what measures the Government should take to assist further in these areas.
  • The social, legal and ethical issues raised by developments in robotics and artificial intelligence technologies, and how they should be addressed.

1. The implications for the future UK workforce and job market

One only has to look at the enabling technologies that are developing that impact the taxi business. The first technology was satellite navigation (satnav) which has enabled everyone to have the “knowledge”, the second is the scheduling and booking software, think Uber, which has brought convenience to the process of getting a taxi to the consumer. The third transformational technology is obviously the self-driving cars. Combining all these technologies together, and you have an industry that is completely transformed with the potential to remove the need for taxi drivers from the picture. With this we need to consider where a human driver could add value in the process, for some types of journeys, a chauffeur adds value and prestige. Sometime people need help with there luggage and directions when they arrive at destination. So we need to consider that these technologies are not fully automating the process, but augmenting the process, freeing the driver to focus on more important customer service and value add services.

This is a really important aspect of the transformation that robotics and automation will have on the labour force. In many cases, RAS does not have to fully remove humans from the picture, we embrace the ability for RAS to remove the monotonous tasks from a given job. This is what I refer to as augmentation [1, 2]. Augmentation has the ability for RAS to support the human labour force, allowing the humans to focus on more complex or value add tasks.

We need to educate the population not to fear the advent of technology transformation on the workforce, but to embrace the freedom that it brings. RAS delivers augmentation, which removes the dull repetitive tasks from the job and frees the human to focus on the more interesting, value add, complex tasks.

Given this, many industries will need the workforce to be trained to embrace the changes that RAS technologies will deliver, and understand the changes to the work, focusing more on more complex or value-add tasks.

The other aspect to the workforce and job market, is the need to educate people on how to empower RAS. We need many more people to have a solid understanding of coding. Computer programming is the new language for the 21st century, and we need everyone in the UK to be able to speak it. Coding is important but providing the ability to think in system terms, integrating separate RAS systems to deliver a combined solution will be increasingly important for us all in the near future. There is work done by many companies and initiatives to help educate the workforce, including decoded.com and homeAI.info. These initiatives should be supported more via government grants.

We need to start as early as possible with this skills training. Children are the most receptive to technology and seem to have a natural instinct to adopt them. We should make computer science a foundational subject as much as english and maths is. After all, technology is our future, and those that don’t understand it, and can use it, will get left behind.

It is encouraging that the government via is RAS Challenges is positioning the UK as one of the best places to develop self-drive vehicles, but developing this technology is only part of the story in terms of enabling its adoption, workforce strategy, legal and ethical implications and social factors need to be considered and should be provided for.

While I have used the self-driving cars as an example, it is obvious that the same concerns and factors would be found across many other real applications of RAS.

2. social and economic opportunities exploited to deliver benefits to the UK

The development and commercialisation of RAS technologies has the ability to delight, enthuse and empower a nation. This effect, to be leading the next industrial revolution, should not be understated from both a social and economic perspective.

However, we will need to help the nation make the journey from mystique caused by limited understanding of the technologies to acceptance via information and knowledge of how these systems work. Training and education is a key to the social acceptance of such technologies not just to the ability to create and develop such technologies. If as a nation we can rapidly accept RAS, and accept the changes that augmentation will bring to our lives, we will free ourselves to deliver more economic value to the UK but focusing on more complex and worthwhile endeavours.

With people working less risky and manually intensive jobs (as these will be augmented by robotics and automation), combined with the development of life prolonging methods (medicines, food, age reducing), the population will grow quicker than currently expected and we will have more opportunities for recreational activities to be more frequently available to people. We will have a more utopia outlook, with people working less, living longer and focusing on developing their skills and interests for pure recreational purposes.

3. funding, research and innovation landscape facilitates the UK maintaining a lead position

If the UK wishes to be at the forefront of RAS, then we need to give startups much more support than we currently do. I personally find it frustrating that so many good machine learning startups are being funding or outright purchased by US controlling companies. We need to stop this. Why cant the UK nurture more of its own leaders in this sector. There is no point us having the raw talent and skills needed to provide leading companies in this area, if we then give them up easily to be rolled into the US economy. We should make it a lot easier for startups and developing companies to gain access to funds to continue its research and development activities without the immediate pressures of producing commercial products immediately. We need to support our talent to produce world leading enterprises. The evidence seems that at the moment we are not supporting these companies enough.

While we see that the work Innovate UK and Research Councils, as acknowledged on the commentary on recommendation 2, is bringing together the research and innovation communities by fostering various relationships, there still seems to be a gap from academic activities to commercial enterprise. However, as mentioned with recommendation 5, the cross sector grand challenges, appear to be a perfect platform to develop complex applications of RAS technologies and will help bring the various communities together.

4. the social, legal and ethical issues raised by such technologies

With such a transformational environment, the impact on social, legal and ethical issues are non-trivial. There should be a body established (as there has been in the US) to look at how the technology industry can be supported by considering these aspects. In fact in the US, there have been a number of institutes setup that are concerned with such issues, I am not sure if this fragmentation is helpful. I also believe that there is a real risk of over hyping the social and ethical concerns with such transformation. From the industrial age onwards, we have seen many new technologies introduced into many different sectors, while there may have been some initial resistance, it is difficult to halt the adoption and progress of such. We need to provide the support and guidance that will allow such adoption to be done in a gentle and positive way.

There will no doubt be situations where legal and ethical concerns will need to be addressed, if we don’t act now to start preparations on the legal system to allow the freedom of adoption, the UK will end up being behind other nations. We should continue to have the best legal system in the world that acknowledges and copes for such technology advances. Ethics is an area that has far reaching implications, from the development of the systems, to how they operate, to the bias of any legal system that oversees the implementation of an ethical framework. I would suggest that an ethical framework will be the most difficult aspect, and we have to remember that we don’t have such a framework now, and we instead rely on manufacturers of machines and systems to do the right thing and leverage the legal system to deal with breaches of such trust. So do we really need an ethics framework if the legal system is updated to consider these new technologies.

The social aspects are complex, and span both the changes to the workforce environment to the empowerment that such technologies can give individuals. It will be seen that RAS deliver huge benefits but can, in the wrong hands, deliver devastating results. It must be knowledge that any machine or technology can use applied for good or bad. You only have to think about nuclear fusion for an example of this with the atomic bomb and atomic power stations. Its less about the technology itself but how we decide to apply it. Maybe this leads to a way to licence such technologies for appropriate use, by appropriate bodies, but this may then just force the development of such technologies underground, which would properly be more harmful in the longer term. As part of this we have to ask ourselves now about the implications of autonomous weapons, and who is responsible if such incorrectly targets friends.

summary

In summary, the area of machine learning, robotics and autonomous systems will no-doubt be known as the next industrial revolution, and the UK must be front and centre of this transformation. Establishing a RAS Leadership Council to provide the independent advisory and oversight to deliver the RAS strategy will become increasingly important over the next three to five years.

There are many aspects to consider over and above just facilitating the skills and talent to develop such technologies, we need to be able to navigate the complex ecosystem of research and innovation to empower the transition to the marketplace. We need to support startups and companies so they can remain to deliver economic benefit to the UK rather than see them be transferred to other countries.

Initiatives that look to train people in coding should be supported more via government grants.We should make computer science a foundational subject as much as english and maths is. Training and education is a key to the social acceptance of such technologies

There should be a body established to look at how the technology industry can be supported by considering the social, legal and ethical aspects. We should continue to have the best legal system in the world that acknowledges and copes for such technology advances.

Robotics and Autonomous systems have the potential to deliver huge advantages and benefits to the UK if we are able to accelerate the adoption and leverage the augmentation of such technologies.

Dr Andy Pardoe
Founder of Informed.AI

[1] http://andypardoecom.wpengine.com/blog/the-four-as-pyramid-framework/
[2] http://andypardoecom.wpengine.com/blog/the-four-as-pyramid-framework-part-2/

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