Future of robots after covid? The Covid-19 shock is bad news for the advanced capitalist economies. It is even worse news for some of the workers there: not only is their job suspended in the best of cases, but recessions are also usually strongly associated with increased automation, especially of routine jobs. Yes, you read that right: when unemployment rises-companies introduce robots. For better or worse the robots are going to replace many humans in their jobs, analysts say, and the coronavirus outbreak is speeding up the process.
In the series “The World After Covid”, Robin Murphy from Texas A&M University will talk about the future of robots and automation in a post-covid world.
- As a result of Covid-19(Dr. Murphy), we will have robots everywhere. Because we are using them everywhere for Covid. I mean everybody thinks of the robots: “Oh, okay, maybe for healthcare, telepresence, and telenursing”, but NO. We are using them for public safety, production, quarantine enforcement, disinfecting public spaces, laboratory automation, delivery of infectious samples but also food, supplies, things like that.
- Regular people are using them for socializing – to ask people out on a date. One person I Cyprus used his to walk his dog since he wasn’t allowed out. So, we are seeing robots everywhere and not just in the military or government. Regular people, regular industry, regular individuals use them.
What has been the impact of this moment of Covid on your field of robotics, on robots?
- It has been pretty large, but you are touching one of the big myths about disasters, and particularly disaster robotics is that: “We are going to do something like Apolo 13, we are getting some duct tape and room and we are taping it all together, we are going to make it work without a lot of sleep”. Well, that is not what happens at all. If you look at disasters starting with the very first use of robots and disasters at 9/11, it is that things are always technologically mature and have already been used. BUT not exactly for that application, but they were already there because you would never use it. It would be irresponsible and unethical to use things that were not technologically mature because you CAN make a disaster worse, you can make things worse. Then we think about healthcare, the ramifications are there.
- So, what you have seen is – a lot of robots that already existed get used a lot more and a lot more visibly. And everybody who is healthcare’s famous is sort of a slow adoption cycle, public safety and now they are like:
- “Wait! That hospital has disinfection robots and they have been around since 2015, why don’t we have them?”
- So, it is really taking a lot of robots that are existing. Same thing with aerial vehicles. We’ve had a very good investment all over the world in agricultural sprayers. These robots look like a pizza plate quadcopter, they can carry chemicals and do very precise agriculture. Well, you can just grab those, change out what you are spraying and make it disinfectant. Now we have got a whole other set of applications, but they existed, they were already easy to use. Anybody can use those. So, we are seeing a whole lot of robots like that and the innovation that we are seeing with robots is mostly on the usage, using existing mature robots.
Of course, the question in everyone’s mind is: What would be the impact of all these robots doing work instead of humans and our jobs?
- I mean, we have been arguing is that you don’t see a huge job replacement, you may see job displacement. But in general, you are not even seeing that much job displacement. Well now here are great examples of: “You didn’t put any doctors and nurses out of work, you PROTECTED them. You let them work better, longer, a compassionate hands-on intellectual task rather than doing things like – take out the infected trash having to expose themselves. So, now we are beginning to see this idea that you can work with robots, that they can be tools, they can help you with capacity. And they don’t have to be humanoid, they need to have general artificial intelligence, they just need to be smart enough as a dog to say: “Take that there”.
What do you think are the robotic surprises that may be in store? That people right now are not thinking about but might happen.
- That’s a fantastic question. I think maybe the biggest surprise isn’t really a surprise. We already see a lot about drones. I love the commercial with the car where a guy goes out and all the drones are whacking, shooting little lasers at people and he gets his guards, being able to escape. But, you know, we kind of have this zeitgeist about drones, but I think that was the big win.
- So, what we are going to see is more of those types of uses where they are not scary and are part of our everyday life. They are going to become actually more pervasive. I think one of the big things that are going to come out in the next 5 years is the increasing use of marine robots. Underwater, on the surface robot boats, because let’s face it – 80% of the world population lives by water. Our critical infrastructure, the really hard part to figure out are things like: the bridges, the underwater part.
- Civil engineers explain to me very sad. One time they said: “Yes, we don’t really care about aerial vehicles, because we can actually see with the binoculars. We have got that part down, it is the underwater part”. So, the advances that we are seeing in low-cost marine vehicles are really going to show up in the next 5-10 years.
- The road ahead should now be clear. We need to make sure that the incoming wave of automation likely to come in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic leaves no one behind. Not only is it a moral and political imperative for progress, but it also makes perfect economic sense. Most importantly, focusing on inclusive automation might actually benefit both workers and employers. The robots and their usage solely depend on us and our intelligence of how are they used. We can use them to replace humans, we can use them to help us, serve us humans in many ways.