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What is a robot?

The word “robot” was first introduced by the Czech interwar writer Karel Čapek in his celebrated play Rossum’s Universal Robots, published in 1920 [although, he later named his brother, the painter and writer Josef Čapek, as its actual originator].

A robot is essentially a machine designed to execute one or more tasks automatically with speed and precision. There are as many different types of robots as there are tasks for them to perform. Robots can be guided by an external control device or the control may be embedded within. They may take on human form but most robots are machines designed to perform a task with no regard to how they look.

The business case
Robotic process automation (RPA) continues to be taken up by more organisations – but despite proven benefits, those that already use it are struggling to scale it up.

According to research from Deloitte, 81% of business leaders now support the use of robotics compared with 72% last year, and 67% of them are starting to introduce the technology compared with 49% in 2017.

Those that have already implemented RPA report improved productivity (95%), with 93% stating that it has made compliance processes better. More than three-quarters report that RPA is providing better information to management.

Justin Watson, robotics and cognitive automation lead at Deloitte, said robots are fixtures in the workplace. “The challenge now will be for robotics to be scaled effectively to truly show their worth in boosting productivity as well as reducing risk, increasing revenue and improving the experience of both customers and employees,” he added.

However, most businesses are struggling to add more robots to their estates to reap further benefits. Deloitte found that only 4% of the organisations surveyed used more than 50 robots. This figure was 3% above the previous year, revealing little advance.

Three key social and ethical issues within robotics, in the context of business, are:


(1) Security and privacy
An increase in cyber attacks, combined with the shift toward automating business
processes using RPA, introduces new risks that must be addressed to secure sensitive data and instil trust in robotics platforms. When it comes to securing RPA implementations, an organization must consider the technical, process and human elements of the entire robotics ecosystem. A secure design should include the entire product life cycle from requirements, selection, architecture, implementation and ongoing operations. To build trust within a robotics platform, the following need to be provided.

  • Integrity: Can I trust that the data and results I get from my bots has not been modified or altered?
  • Traceability: Am I able to monitor and track bot activities to identify the misuse of robotics affecting confidentially, integrity or availability of other systems/data?
  • Confidentiality: Can I protect sensitive data from being purposely or accidentally disclosed by bot creators and bot runners?
  • Control: Am I controlling access and protecting privileged accounts leveraged by the robotics system and users?

 

 

Conclusion

(2) Governance

Nationally and internationally a number of efforts are underway to develop governance frameworks for AI and robotics. Within the UK, an initiative by the Royal Society and the British Academy is considering governance of data, and the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee (STC) has called for a Commission on the ethical and societal impacts of AI . There is also the European Parliament’s recent effort to develop civil law rules for robotics. Governance and regulation will need to be international if it is to be effective and not simply promote competitive advantages for less regulated countries. Leadership in this field include: the IEEE, World Economic Forum, and the Foundation for Responsible Robotics.

(3) Robots are taking our jobs. Are the fears justified?

There are certainly some harbingers of bad news. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the impact of increased usage of industrial robots on US local labour markets from 1990 to 2007 and found that there were “large and robust negative effects of robots on employment and wages across commuting zones.” According to the historical data, jobs lost to robots have not been adequately replaced by new opportunities brought by robots, an argument technologists often fall back on.

Those findings are not predictive and should be taken in proper context — the current boom in robotics largely started after 2007, and it’s difficult to correlate the impact of robots on employment in industries as disparate as manufacturing and healthcare.

But the fears are real enough that heavy hitters are taking note. Bill Gates has voiced support for a robot tax, for instance — a levy on the work robots do, which would replace income tax lost by the government when a robot takes human jobs. South Korea has come closest to that vision and appears ready to tax incentives for companies investing in automation. South Korea’s President is worried that higher unemployment in the robotic age will necessitate a robust welfare system, which is a huge problem since the government would be collecting less tax revenue to pay for such a system during an employment crisis.

A recent report by Price Waterhouse Cooper suggests that up to 38 percent of US jobs could be lost to automation by the early 2030s. “The risks appear highest in sectors such as transportation and storage (56%), manufacturing (46%) and wholesale and retail (44%), but lower in sectors like health and social work (17%).”

On the other hand, there’s a credible argument that automation has resulted in regional job losses, but net job increases. One proponent of this view is the trade association A3, which released a study that found that during non-recessionary periods going back to 1996, both general employment and robot shipments increased. “To us,” Jeff Burnstein, President of A3, said, “that means that robots weren’t killing jobs.”

A few years ago, the International Federation of Robotics issued a study that looked at robotics use in China, Japan, Brazil, and India. As robot use accelerated in those countries, unemployment fell.

IDC recently found that spending on robotics will reach US$135.4 billion by 2019, up from US$71 billion two years ago. According to the report, services such as training, deployment, integration, and consulting will account for US$32 billion of that, which accounts for a lot of new jobs.

Even the oft-cited PWC report isn’t all doom and gloom. Robots increase productivity, and productivity gains tend to generate wealth. Historically, that’s led to an increase in service sector jobs, which aren’t easy to automate.

 

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Anthony Weaver
Editorial Manager
Connect-World Magazines
United Kingdom
Email: anthony.weaver@connect-world.com
Web: www.connect-world.com
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