Robots no risk — researcher

by Mike Isle

In the first part of The Record’s two-part series, Robotics in the Workplace , we looked at how ground-breaking research undertaken by Dr Armin Werner and his Lincoln Agritech team into robotic technology will be opening new opportunities for New Zealand industry. Now, in Part Two, we seek to answer two of the more common questions regarding that technology: will it be a help or hindrance, and will robots take our jobs?

Dr Armin Werner is only too well aware of the misconceptions surrounding the subject of one of his pet projects: robotics. He knows that Hollywood, in such movies as Wall-E, 2001: A Space Odyssey and even the Transformers franchise, has perpetuated the myth of omnipotent robots or even out of control robots seeking to overtake the world.

He says such fears are groundless. A science fiction. Rather than robots being a threat, they will become part of the machinery we rely on and like all machines, we use these can benefit humankind, and he is determined that robots and robotic technology will take their rightful place alongside humans, not only in the workplace. 

Dr Werner is Lincoln Agritech’s group manager in precision agriculture. Based at Lincoln University, just outside of Rolleston, Dr Werner and his team are taking part in Robotic Spearhead, a $2 million project funded by the Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI), a government paid programme. He and his project partners focus on developing robots to work in small-scale manufacturing industries and unforgiving outdoor environments.

Forestry is an example of the latter, and Dr Werner sees robotics playing an increasing role in one of New Zealand’s foremost primary industries but also in the thriving high-tech industries.

“Robots can assist with complex tasks such as pruning trees, felling trees on steep slopes and even assembling and ‘instructing’ other machinery to do the job swiftly, effectively and safely.”

However, forestry is not the only area in which robotics can play a role in the workforce. Nor is safety the only benefit.

“For me, it is easy to accept that robots will have a place in highly repetitive, monotonous and hard and dangerous work.

“In many industries that work is already undertaken by machinery, and it may well be that robotics will have an increasing role in ‘managing’ that machinery.

“The standard definition of a robot in contrast to the automated process of a machine is that the robot has some form of autonomy. A robot should not need to be constantly supervised. But, it can help supervise other machinery.”

However, Dr Werner is at pains to point out that robots supervising other machinery is a far cry from them taking over from humans in the workplace. “As far as we can see, the typical workforce of most industries is not at risk from robots at the moment.”

Dr Werner says it is difficult to predict the eventual ratio of human staff to robots. Moreover, he can point to current statistics that offer a credible insight into the future.

“Specialists expect 1.7 million industrial robots globally by 2020. That figure does not really impress me, considering that we have about one to two billion skilled people in the global workforce.

“The employees to robot ratio in the manufacturing industries of highly-developed countries is around 10,000 to 80. So, even if the robot population increases by 70% over the next few years, the ratio of humans to robots would still be large: 10,000 to 135.

“I do not see this as a serious risk for the major workforce for the foreseeable future. Some of my colleagues predict that serious changes, including a complete overhaul of our work types, will take us into a journey over the next 100 years.

“We should not worry about losing some of our jobs to robots. In fact, we will likely create new jobs that need to build, manage, and maintain the robots and train new people on how to use them.”

If Dr Werner and his colleagues and researchers are right, it is unlikely that any of us will be sharing our workspace with Wall-E any time soon.