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Monthly Archives: December 2013

New report – robots will yield dramatic productivity gains that will wipe out countless jobs

Economists have become accustomed to associate long-term economic growth with technological progress. Indeed the opening line of the standard textbook in the area states that the: “most basic proposition of growth theory is that in order to sustain a positive growth rate of output per capita in the long run, there must be continual advances in technological knowledge” (Aghion and Howitt, 1998, p. 11). Sharing a ride

However, as is often the case, technology advancement is blamed for job losses. A new report issued by The Atlantic Council titled Envisioning 2030 US strategy for the coming tech revolution, looks at industries and public policy where technologies form part of the solution, but also where the emerging technologies pose their own challenges.

The report states:

We are not prepared for the negative consequences of many new technologies or as well-positioned as we should be to take full advantage of the benefits. Emerging technologies are likely to be more beneficial than detrimental, but the opposite could be true if we are not careful.

3D/4D printing and robotics, in addition to synthetic biology, have now reached a takeoff point. We, and others have labeled all of these developments a Third Industrial Revolution.

The convergence and synergies of several broad technologies, particularly nano, bio, IT, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, new materials, and robotics is perhaps the most important driver of what we and others consider a Third Industrial Revolution with the potential to produce even more social, economic, and political disruption than we have ever seen before.

The report strongly urges caution, but paradoxically encourages we embrace emerging technology:

A Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) is emerging that will transform not just production but society itself.  The first industrial revolution was the application of steam power to production processes in the eighteenth century; the second was the invention of the modern assembly line at the beginning of the twentieth century.19 Like its predecessors, TIR is changing the way things are made, where and when they are produced, and how they are distributed. It is reducing the energy and raw materials consumed and the carbon footprint of manufacturing. It is changing social relations, creating but also destroying jobs, and altering the relationship of people to production.

It is moving the world from mass production of standardized items to bespoke products to meet the requirements of individual needs. It is also transforming the global economy, providing new opportunities for the developing as well as developed world, and costs if nations don’t adapt.

The authors caution:

Disruption is inevitable and much is likely to be beneficial, but some of the disruption could be harmful, even posing existential threats if not controlled.

The TIR is also raising the age-old question of whether new advances in technology will eventually create a myriad of new jobs and more widely distributed wealth, as has been the case in the past, or will new technologies lead to long-term structural unemployment, exacerbating already high levels of inequality and potentially sparking social instability.

The report does a good job showing how synergies with technologies can vastly improve our lives and cities. But in summing up the report authors indicate:

Ever more capable robots will yield dramatic productivity gains that will wipe out countless jobs and possibly entire professions.

I agree, automation and robotics will displace jobs, but as is the case with all ‘creative destruction,’ new jobs will be found to meet the changing needs of the technological advances.  The root cause of today’s underperforming economy remains insufficient spending by households, businesses and governments to fully employ all those who want a job, not to mention outsourcing of jobs to developing countries and migration of low pay workers. And the cure for this is policy measures to boost spending, such as the infrastructure roadmap by the UK Government or the European Vision 2020.

Technology has often been cited as the cause of job losses whilst the benefits can be overlooked, in early 1932, just after the Great Depression, Schumpeter wrote: “It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievement of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings [in the 16th century]. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort . . . the capitalist process, not by coincidence but by virtue of its mechanism, progressively raises the standard of life of the masses.”

Everything depends on the context of policy and commerce, mainly the degree to which a group or a nation can maximize the creative components while mitigating the destructive side effects.

Robots can make Europe more competitive, creating jobs

‘Robotics technology will become dominant in the coming decade. It will influence every aspect of work and home. Robotics has the potential to transform lives and work practices, raise efficiency and safety levels, provide enhanced levels of service, and create jobs. Its impact will grow over time as will the interaction between robots and people.’ – This is the vision of Robotics 2020, an initiative containing the Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) for Robotics in Europe drafted by the European Association of Robotics.

According to the vision of Robotics 2020:

Robots will transform almost every industry and service sector. Europe has the potential to lead this process, but this requires sustained investment in research, innovation, companies, and in the infrastructures needed to integrate robotics technology within our systems and society.

At its completion, the EU’s 2007-2013 funding programme FP7 directly funded some 130 robotics-based research projects involving around 500 organisations with total grants of some EUR 536 million. Other funding with elements related to robotics amounted to some EUR 170 million. This unique level of investment has yielded a vibrant and active research community within Europe both in academia and industry. Europe therefore has a strong basis on which to innovate and create. The focus of the next funding programme, Horizon 2020, concentrated closer to the market and encompassing innovation, will help to leverage this advantage for the European robotics community as new markets and service opportunities are created.

Professor Bruno Siciliano past president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Robotics and Automation Society believes that robots can make Europe more competitive, creating jobs, stating: ‘Robots will enter almost all areas of human activity including the home.’

The Robotics 2020 Strategic Research Agenda for Robotics in Europe can be read here (PDF)…

UK Government betting on driverless cars and robotics

The UK is the latest government to announce large scale investments into driverless cars and robotics. Through its infrastructure plan (pdf) the British government has indicated projected investments in the region of £375 billion ($612 billion) by public and private entities over the next decade or so to create an advanced infrastructure.

Reporting specifically on driverless cars the roadmap states:

Driverless cars are innovative technology that will change the way the world’s towns and cities look and the way people travel; they present opportunities for the British automotive industry in the manufacture of the cars and the wider science and engineering sectors in the design of towns.

To ensure that UK industry and the wider public benefit from the development of driverless cars, the government announces in the National Infrastructure Plan that it will conduct a review, reporting at the end of 2014, to ensure that the legislative and regulatory framework demonstrates to the world’s car companies that the UK is the right place to develop and test driverless cars

Of course the British government are not the first to seek to be a ‘champion’ for driverless cars; Google has permission to test its autonomous cars in several states in the US. Volvo received permission to test driverless cars in Gothenburg, Sweden. Researchers are testing driverless cars in Berlin and earlier this year the French government laid out a ten year roadmap to be leaders in driverless cars, robotics and other advanced technologies.

The UK government report indicates:

This investment will support UK capabilities by funding research and its commercialisation
in priority areas such as robotics, synthetic biology and biologic medicines, regenerative
medicine, agricultural technologies, the exploitation of space, high performance computing and big data analytics.

In its efforts to establish itself as a leading player in autonomous and furthermore, environmentally friendly, cars, the UK Government would be well advised to woo Tesla Motors to set up a European manufacturing facility in the UK. Tesla, who have also announced their plans for an autonomous car, has one of the most advanced robotic factories and electric cars available today.

Google buys seven robot companies

Over the last half-year, Google has quietly acquired seven technology companies in an effort to create a new generation of robots. And the engineer heading the effort is Andy Rubin, the man who built Google’s Android software into the world’s dominant force in smartphones.

According to a report in the New York Times, Rubin says that Google’s robotics efforts should be viewed as a ten-year vision. The company has secretly acquired seven robotics-related companies in the US and Japan, which have technologies capable of creating a mobile robot. Rubin notes that breakthroughs are still needed for software and sensors, but hardware issues like moving hands and arms have been solved.

Google CEO Larry Page says in a Google+ update that he is excited about Rubin’s project. “His last big bet, Android, started off as a crazy idea that ended up putting a supercomputer in hundreds of millions of pockets.  It is still very early days for this, but I can’t wait to see the progress.”

The company is tight-lipped about its specific plans, but the scale of the investment, which has not been previously disclosed, indicates that this is no cute science project.

The NY Times reports:

Earlier this year, Mr. Rubin stepped down as head of the company’s Android smartphone division. Since then he has convinced Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Mr. Page, that the time is now right for such a venture, and they have opened Google’s checkbook to back him. He declined to say how much the company would spend.

Mr. Rubin has secretly acquired an array of robotics and artificial intelligence start-up companies in the United States and Japan.

Among the companies are Schaft, a small team of Japanese roboticists who recently left Tokyo University to develop a humanoid robot (and is taking part in the DARPA Challenge), and Industrial Perception, a start-up here that has developed computer vision systems and robot arms for loading and unloading trucks. Also acquired were Meka and Redwood Robotics, makers of humanoid robots and robot arms in San Francisco, and Bot & Dolly, a maker of robotic camera systems that were recently used to create special effects in the movie “Gravity.” A related firm, Autofuss, which focuses on advertising and design, and Holomni, a small design firm that makes high-tech wheels, were acquired as well.

The seven companies are capable of creating technologies needed to build a mobile, dexterous robot. Mr. Rubin said he was pursuing additional acquisitions.

The seven startups acquired by Google, include Japanese robotics company SchaftRedwood Robotics, 3D vision company Industrial Perception, and Bot & Dolly (which built the robots that helped film Gravity). Google has also acquired Meka Robotics, advertising and design firm Autofuss, in addition to advanced wheel design firm Holomni.

Amazon testing drones to boost delivery service

Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, is testing unmanned drones to deliver goods to customers, according to Chief Executive Jeff Bezos.

The drones, called Octocopters, could deliver packages weighing up to 2.3kg to customers within 30 minutes of them placing the order, he said.

Bezos indicated that it could take up to four years for the service to start, possibly due to the fact that the US Federal Aviation Administration is yet to approve the use of unmanned drones for civilian purposes (although that permission is considered imminent).

“I know this looks like science fiction, but it’s not,” Mr Bezos told CBS television’s 60 Minutes programme.

“We can do half-hour delivery… and we can carry objects, we think, up to five pounds (2.3kg), which covers 86% of the items that we deliver.”

The service will be called Prime Air and comes as Amazon is looking to improve its efficiency to further strengthen its client relations and boost growth.

Civilian air space is expected to be opened up to all kinds of drones in the US by 2015 and in Europe by 2016. Bloomberg reports: “Expanded use of commercial drones is inevitable.” 

Amazon said “from a technology point of view, we’ll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place”.

The FAA was “actively working on rules for unmanned aerial vehicles”, the company said, adding that it hoped the green light would be given as early as 2015.

On its website Amazon wrote: “One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.” Check out a video of Amazon demonstrating its Prime Air service below: