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More humans working alongside robots

Experts call use of robotics and artificial intelligence the fourth industrial revolution

Robo Global marking the fifth anniversary of its robotics index and exchange-traded fund by using a robot to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

New York

WHEN Robo Global's team recently gathered at the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate the fifth anniversary of its robotics index and exchange-traded fund (ETF), it marked the event in true robotic fashion: A robot, propped on a table, reached out its arm and rang the closing bell as 15 company executives applauded wildly next to it. The gesture was aimed to show the world how easy - and increasingly common - it is for humans to work alongside robots.

"It was symbolic," said Travis Briggs, chief executive of Robo Global's operations in the United States. "We're in the first inning of this transition to automation and artificial intelligence, and there is a massive amount of growth potential."

Indeed, robotics and automation are no longer viewed as a passing fad or a cool technology for geeks to gush over. Instead, more companies are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to bolster productivity and stay relevant in a fiercely competitive market.

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Experts call it the fourth industrial revolution and compare today's robotics in the workplace to the early days of the Internet. At a recent conference hosted by Robo Global, experts showed photos and videos of robotic prototypes of all shapes and sizes: robots that climb stairs and AI-laced pills that can retrieve foreign objects from a person's stomach. They even included a video of a woman with electrodes attached to her head, using thoughts to tell a robot where to place an object.

"We're starting to see robots and automated systems penetrate every sector of the economy," said Jeremie Capron, director of research at Robo Global. "The pace of change is really accelerating, so, yes, it's a revolution."

Robo Global, which researches, advises and invests in robotics, automation and AI companies, knows all about the sector's growth. Since setting up its Robo Global Robotics & Automation Index ETF (Robo), which tracks more than 80 companies, the corporation reports that assets from all funds tracking the Robo Global indexes, have soared to US$3.46 billion from US$43 million its first year.

Many Americans, who grew up watching science fiction and Terminator movies in which robots were the enemy, worry about robots stealing their jobs.

A recent report, The Future of Jobs 2018, by the World Economic Forum (WEF), forecasts that machines will perform more than half of all current workplace tasks by 2025, up from 29 per cent today. It also predicts that 75 million jobs will be displaced by 2022, but that 133 million jobs will be created. Of the new jobs, 54 per cent will require new skills.

A McKinsey Global Institute report is gloomier, predicting that by 2030, as many as 800 million people worldwide may have been displaced by automation and will need to find new jobs. The retail giant Amazon was one of the earliest to embrace this technology, with its US$775 million acquisition of Kiva - now called Amazon Robotics - in 2012.

Amazon had been under pressure to deliver orders to its Amazon Prime customers within the promised 48-hour window without losing money, Mr Capron said. The robots wander up and down the aisles, bringing shelves of items directly to associates to package and ship, significantly slashing costs and shortening the time to process and deliver an order. Today, Amazon has more than 100,000 robots navigating 26 fulfilment centres worldwide. But Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, said it is a myth that automation always destroys jobs. "Since the acquisition of Kiva, we've added 300,000 full-time jobs globally," he said. "Last year alone, we added 130,000."

As robots have become faster, smaller, cheaper and safer in recent years, more and more companies have sought robotics to step up productivity, increase precision or cut costs, said Stuart Shepherd, regional sales director for Universal Robots USA and chairman of the Association for Advancing Automation.

The average hourly cost of a manufacturing worker to an employer is US$36 in the United States, while the hourly cost of a robot is US$4, according to a recent Pew Research report.

All Axls Machining, a business in Dallas, was struggling to find enough workers to operate its metal fabrication equipment and to sand and inspect metal parts manually for the medical, aerospace, defence and industrial sectors. But then Gary Kuzmin, the company's owner, discovered Universal Robots - which makes collaborative robots, or cobots, which are small, affordable and designed to operate safely side by side with workers. They are easy to program to do multiple tasks and allow the company to crank out parts around the clock.

After introducing the robots, one job that was expected to take six months to complete was finished in less than half that time, Mr Kuzmin said. The company became so adept at programming the robots for different jobs that it formed an All Axls Robotics unit, which sells its specially programmed robots to other machine shops. Mr Kuzmin said that the increased productivity allowed him to hire - rather than fire - more workers, increasing his workforce to 22 from 16.

In certain sectors - consumer electronics, car manufacturing and logistics - "we're moving into an era where automation has really gone from a competitive advantage right now to absolutely necessary", Mr Briggs said. "Automate or fail."

All of this has stoked fears, especially among Americans, that robots, automation and AI will throw millions of people onto the unemployment line. New jobs will offset losses, but retraining and education will be critical. As many as 375 million workers globally will need to change job categories and learn new skills to survive the transition, according to the McKinsey Global Institute report.

How quickly and how deeply AI and robotics penetrate the job market will ultimately dictate how rapidly people need to be retrained. "History tells me that every prior technological revolution has resulted in more wealth and more jobs," Mr Capron said. "So it would have to be very different this time around for history not to repeat itself." NYTIMES