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The March of Intellect

Robots and the eternal technology anachronism

May 23 2016

Humans by nature fear the unknown, especially when they see it as a threat to their livelihoods and the comfort of the status-quo. However, when it comes to technology advances this fear is often based on false and uninformed constructs of reality and the future. This is exemplified in Bronte’s quotation and the contemporary cartoon in the image below, both from the Industrial Revolution ear, when the steam locomotive, the telegraph, the sewing machine or Edison’s light bulb were invented and rapidly spread throughout the land.

“… these sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them: they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.”

From Shirley. A Tale, by Charlotte Bronte, 1849

Robots are another step on this technological march. In general, as Bronte’s quotation suggests, people’s greatest fear is that in the future robots will replace humans widely and we will all be left out of work, twiddling our thumbs at home. But history has proven time and time again that new technology creates alternative jobs, improves people’s quality of life and encourages imagination and creativity. The steam locomotive directly created multiple jobs, and by enabling new economic activity, indirectly created many more, changing England and the World for ever.. However, on the flip side, there have been failures in the past to investigate the socio-economic repercussions of new technology in advance, and this has led to ad-hoc responses and adaptation strategies that have not always been smooth. The steam locomotive caused a major influx into cities, increased air pollution, decreased the quality of living conditions for many and had a knock-on effect in other sectors such as agriculture. In part this is because ‘The Market’ has been left unmoderated to roll out these technologies, with its focus on balance sheets, return on investment and dividends; not on people: ‘The Market’ does not cater for the adaptation strategies of workers, communities and citizens.

Between now and 2050, the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that the proportion of the UK population living in cities will increase from 80% to 86%. This is part of a worldwide trend, as cities and mega-cities become home for most of the world’s population. The quality of life for future citizens will be largely decided by the engineering innovations and policy decisions of the next ten years. This quality of life is critically dependent on infrastructure systems that provide water, gas, electricity, transport etc. These interact with natural systems that provide clean air, biodiversity, waste disposal, recycling, and other associated services. In the city of the future, infrastructure will be autonomously maintained and dynamically responsive to secure the health & wellbeing of its citizens, contribute to flourishing and sustainable natural systems, and create positive economic and societal outlook. These cities will be more like urban forests, unobtrusively looking after themselves and providing a sustainable ecosystem for their inhabitants in harmony with nature.

Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) will creatively disrupt current engineering infrastructure approaches that will rebalance the energy, resource and risk undertaken in street infrastructure maintenance and modernisation. In turn, it will rid our cities of the socially and environmentally damaging air, noise, light and waste pollution that occurs from infrastructure maintenance associated with roads. In a new EPSRC funded project announced recently, ‘Balancing the impact of City Infrastructure Engineering on Natural systems using Robots’, at the University of Leeds we are proposing to develop robots for city infrastructure maintenance and repair. Our goal is to have Zero disruption by 2035.

To avoid past shortcomings, we are taking a holistic view of how new technology should be rolled out with emphasis not only on creating the best possible robots to maintain infrastructure, but also on how they will affect people. We are placing people at the centre, focussing on how technology serves them, rather than ‘bottom lines’ in spreadsheets. It starts with our motivation: zero disruption means better air quality, fewer delays, less material and resource use, all of which has a direct impact on people both now and for generations to come. Our approach has initially two angles: on the one hand, we are developing advanced robots and control systems to remove people from risky jobs such as working at height, around deep excavations or near live electricity mains. On the other hand, we will also investigate what the socio-economic impacts of this will be on workers, communities and citizens to develop and propose social adaptation strategies that preserve quality of life. We believe that such interdisciplinary research is essential to meaningfully, rigorously and objectively plan what this future looks like and not leave ‘The Market’ to do so on its own.

In this way, by placing people at the centre and expecting technology to serve communities, we hope that people can more confidently embrace technology rather than fear it and help end the eternal technology anachronism.

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