It’s no secret that robots have always suffered from bad optics. Whether viewed as remorseless killing machines or, worse, job-killing machines that never need medical coverage, robots are historical objects of suspicion. A new video from a UK robotics firm takes aim at that second accusation. Robots are being designed to work in collaboration with people, not replace them.
The firm, Active8 Robots, has named its creation Sawyer. As it turns out, Sawyer is a whiz at packaging. The robot — whose body consists of a long red arm along with a display screen featuring two cartoonish “eyes” — arranges and packs items along a conveyor belt in a DHL factory in the UK. It’s smart, too. The video explains that Sawyer can adapt to its environment, sensing the edge of a tray and ensuring there won’t be a domino-like cascade of mishaps because of one stupid mistake. Most of all, though, Active8 and DHL stress that Sawyer can work with human employees, not instead of them.
DHL, the largest packaging company in the country, recently released a report about integrating robotics into every aspect of their factory from carting materials around to packaging them to delivering them to consumers’ homes. With robots like Sawyer, factories across the world are beginning to consider the shift to mechanical employees. DHL calls this the fourth industrial revolution, or “Industry 4.0” — a new era in which robots will take on the simpler tasks and humans will inevitably have to learn new skills.
These same ideas are finding their way into daily conversations and even political discussion. In his farewell address on January 10, President Barack Obama warned that “the next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” However, since the Trump Administration took office, the people seem to be more concerned about whether or not the robots will be built in America rather than if they will take their jobs.
Active8 has gone to great lengths to assuage fears that they’re going to put a generation of people out of work with their robots. They don’t see robots replacing the human workforce, but working alongside them. In a public statement on March 2, Active8 said the shift would not be as doom-and-gloom as the “media hype” portrays it to be, saying “we need to work smarter and invent new ways of doing things and absolutely embrace new technology that historically has shown over time improves all our lives and leads to better living standards.”
There’s a great deal of truth to this, but Active8 has the rosiest possible view of what it really means to “work smarter.” This will require more education, new skills, and lots of critical thinking and creativity. Ultimately, blue collar workers will have trouble adjusting to these changes.
The World Economic Forum predicts that “by 2020, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have brought us advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced materials, biotechnology and genomics… Some jobs will disappear, others will grow, and jobs that don’t even exist today will become commonplace. What is certain is that the future workforce will need to align its skillset to keep pace.”
But, Active8 seems to think we can have it all and casts a heroic light on our metal counterparts. “There is an opportunity with the introduction of collaborative robots to improve the lot of operatives carrying out, dull, repetitive, often [soul] destroying tasks, that are best suited to robots. Smart people use smart tools to do their work more efficiently, smart robots are just another tool to help us achieve more, improve working conditions, while improving safety in the work place.”
As far as optics go, though, Active8 might’ve benefitted by putting a human alongside Sawyer actually collaborating with it in the video.