Roll on robots: automation's here

Robi, a robot designed for children, was modified  for use by elderly people.

Robi, a robot designed for children, was modified for use by elderly people.

Bill Gates says robots will take our jobs. Stephen Hawking is concerned they are a threat to the human race.

And when it comes to popular culture, there's no end to the way robots are portrayed, from out-of-control Terminators to machines that act just like us.

However, it's still relatively rare to see a robot in a New Zealand workplace.

psychology researcher Dr Rebecca Stafford trials a  robot to help older people with basic healthcare needs, including ...

psychology researcher Dr Rebecca Stafford trials a robot to help older people with basic healthcare needs, including reminders to take medications.

That's about to change if you believe Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who reportedly said earlier this year that workers should prepare for an increasing level of automation, putting many people out of work.

"Software substitution, whether it's for drivers or waiters or nurses, it's progressing," he said.

"Twenty years from now, labour demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don't think people have that in their mental model."

And according to the Economist, it's not just low-skilled workers who should be concerned, with accountants, real estate sales agents and commercial pilots all set to lose their jobs to software.

But in New Zealand, the people who work with robots are a lot less concerned.

One of the firms at the forefront is Scott Technology in Dunedin, which automates boning in meatworks and more recently, a robot that put milking cups on cows.

Chief executive Chris Hopkins says the firm concentrates on agriculture because of its high number of dirty or repetitive jobs, and because it's New Zealand's recognised strength.

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"That for us is an entre into the bigger markets like Australia, then into beef processing, and the big markets for that are USA and Brazil."

This year Scott also bought RobotWorx, an industrial robot company in the large US market, which Hopkins believes Scott can "add our smarts" to.

Robots aren't what people always think, he says.

"Connectivity is going to drive things. Robots are really just an enabler of automation, and automation is just a process that repeats without human intervention."

He says people feared they would lose their jobs when Scott put its automated boners into meatworks, but it actually resulted in upskilling and the creation of new jobs.

That's the sort of thing that must happen if New Zealand businesses are to use robots, says Bruce MacDonald, Associate Professor of the University of Auckland's Electrical & Computer Engineering school.

"Socio-economically, I think it's important we don't leave people behind."

MacDonald has been involved with trialling health-care robots, monitoring patients' vital signs and reminding them to take their medicines. It freed up staff to do more complicated tasks.

Another project he is involved with has won a $7.5m government grant to develop a robot for harvesting and pollenating kiwifruit.

The robot will navigate orchards by radar with vision sensors to distinguish ripe kiwifruit and twist them off, says Alistair Scarf, of the project's commercial partner, RoboticsPlus.

It's pretty smart and already been deemed a world-leading design by a visiting US expert.

"Robotics are widely deployed in factories where their environment's controlled. They're dealing with a man-made product that's exactly the same every time, so the machines don't have to be intelligent."

But fruit is highly variable, proving a stumbling block for traditional robotics.

If it's commercialised, the robot is likely to get lots of support from the fruit industry which struggles to find workers. It can do the work of three workers, doesn't get tired and doesn't take breaks.

But "you'd still call them a completely dumb system, in that they don't really have much awareness at all," says Scarfe.

"They just have the ability to identify whatever they're needing to interact with, and interact with it."

However, once robots prove their viability, Scarfe thinks they will be quickly adopted in New Zealand.

"To keep us competitive on the world stage we're going to have to look at these sorts of things. But we are also targeting the export market."

New Zealander Catherine Mohr is vice president of medical research at Intuitive Surgical, a Nasdaq-listed company which makes surgical robots in Silicon Valley.

A frequent technology speaker who has spoken at TedEx, Mohr says people have very broad ideas of what a robot is.

However, manufacturing robots are not making decisions in real time, based on new information.

"They aren't doing what we would think of artificial intelligence, which is what people tend to think of when they think of robotics."

Mohr's work involves devices that are manipulated by a surgeon, making their work much more precise. There's no tremor in the surgeon's hand but also no decision-making by the robot.

When fears about artificial intelligence are put to one side, Mohr does tend to agree with Gates that robotics could be the biggest thing since the computer.

"If we look at how these technologies have moved into our lives, [the way] the computer and the phone have altered the way we interact with one another, I think that robotics is a very reasonable technology to think that it will have that kind of impact."

As to the pace of change, Mohr says robotics is taking "the normal exponential path that a lot of these technologies take" - cooking along for a bit and now accelerating.

Consumer applications will be next. Society has "a toe dipped in the water" with robotic vacuum cleaners and delivery drones. Now we're set for having robots that pick up after us, call a caregiver of an elderly person if there's any concern about them, or robotic companions that help us lose weight.

But what about our jobs? Could robots replace human workers? Well, yes, says Mohr.

Like cameras when they gained image recognition, crops are being harvested with a robot that can judge what to harvest, whether it's ripe and cut them with precision.

"And that's a pretty fundamental change."

But, she says, "it still doesn't change the fact that that was still a pretty miserable job".

"So I see robots as taking the jobs that are too repetitive, too dirty or too dangerous. We shouldn't be sending humans into coal mines . . . I really hope robots take over those jobs."

Chris Hopkins has reservations about Gates' vision of widespread robot-related unemployment.

"Just like 15-20 years ago they said we would have paperless offices, and now we've got more paper than we ever had."

Robots will be "an evolution rather than a revolution" and like a dishwasher or a cellphone, people will eventually adopt them without blinking, Hipkins says.

"No one ever complains or thinks it's going to take over our jobs when we send in a robot in to disarm a bomb or something like that." Fairfax NZ

 - © Fairfax NZ News

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