Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe: Everything you need to know about robotics

When we hear the word robotics, of course, we first think of robots. For some, robots may be fascinating and exciting; for others, robots represent a fear of the future. In any case, the word robotisation means much more than just robots that are fully automated human simulacra.

Coal and steam engines represent the first industrial revolution. The second and third were marked by electricity, cars, and computer science. At this point, we may be just at the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution, which could be driven by automation, artificial intelligence, and finally, robotics.

The Built In website describes robotics as an interdisciplinary sector of science and engineering dedicated to the design, construction, and use of mechanical robots that can replace or replicate human actions.

So, robots are all devices that can mimic a specific human movement and help people do a job. In the beginning, robots were designed to perform monotonous and straightforward tasks, such as assembling cars on an assembly line. Just 17 years ago, 90 per cent of all robots were “employed” in car factories.

Robots assembling cars in factories. Photo: Robotics Business Review.
Robots assembling cars in factories. Photo: Robotics Business Review.

Since then, however, they have made tremendous progress, as today we can find robots that deliver packages, clean houses, and provide assistance with the most complex medical operations.

Robots are, of course, extremely diverse. A robot that cleans the floor at home is not the same as a robot that assembles cars. Nevertheless, they share much in common within specific categories.

All robots have a mechanical construction that is specially adapted to the task that the robot will perform. Of course, they also need certain electrical components to operate and perform their tasks. The most obvious of these is a battery or similar component that will supply energy.

The third essential component is its programming. Without it, a robot would just be another piece of simple machinery that would always need a human hand to help achieve its purpose. Programming gives the robot the ability to know when and how to carry out a task.

Different types of robots

The RoboBee, an 80 mg robot with a 3 cm wingspan, is just one example of the unique shapes (and sizes) that robots can take. So far, we have managed to categorise them into five primary types:

Pre-Programmed Robots operate in a controlled environment and perform pretty simple tasks; usually, they make just one move. The mechanical arm in a car factory falls into this category. Some hands weld doors, others insert a specific part into place and the like. The purpose of such robots is primarily to perform tasks faster and more efficiently than humans could.

Humanoid Robots are similar to humans and mimic their behaviour. These robots can usually perform human activities (such as running, jumping, and carrying objects). Sometimes, they even have human faces and can imitate expressions such as being sad or happy. The two most famous examples of humanoid robots are Sophia from Hanson Robotics and Atlas from Boston Dynamics.

Robot Sophia. Photo: Social News XYZ.

Autonomous Robots operate without recourse to human control. These robots are typically designed to perform tasks in open environments that do not require human control. They usually use sensors to detect the world around them, and then the computer helps them make the optimal next step based on the data and the task they have to perform. An example of an autonomous robot would be an iRobot vacuum that uses sensors to move around the house and detect obstacles.

Teleoperated Robots, however, are only partially autonomous robots that are usually remotely controlled by a human via a wireless network. These robots typically operate in extreme geographic conditions, weather, or circumstances. Examples of such robots are submarines used to deal with the consequences of underwater oil pipeline leakage (oil spills) or drones used to detect landmines.

There are also Augmenting Robots that either enhance human capabilities or replace those that a person may have never had or had lost. Some examples of current augmentation robots are robotic prosthetic limbs and exoskeletons that have a significant role in rehabilitation services in the medical field.

Will robots “steal” our jobs?

Humans have been dreaming for decades of robots that would be so similar to us that we could not separate them from humans. As much as we dream about them, we are afraid of them simultaneously. There are many books, TV series and movies like I, Robot where they even show a war between humans and robots.

Robot that can imitate human expressions. Photo: The Verge.

In the Better than Us series, however, the main question is what life would actually look like with robots that would be exactly the same as humans and would perform basic tasks such as shopping, walking dogs and cooking.

As early as 1942, Isaac Asimov, the science fiction author, summed up the “Three Laws of Robotics”, which all robots would have to follow to ensure a harmonious life with humans. The first law dictates that a “robot shall not harm a human, or by inaction allow a human to come to harm.”

The second law says that “a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.” However, the third law states that “a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

Robotics and artificial intelligence go hand in hand and evolve hand in hand. For everyday life, the most useful robot will be one that can think for itself. Advances in these technologies will make robots even more innovative, more flexible and more energy efficient in the near future.

Though relatively young, the robotics industry is filled with an admirable promise of progress, Built In wrote on their website. Once upon a time, science fiction could only dream of such achievements. “From the deepest depths of our oceans to thousands of miles in outer space, robots will be found performing tasks that humans couldn’t dream of achieving alone.”

This, of course, immediately raises the question of whether robots will slowly replace us and do the work for us. Will the unemployment rate skyrocket? We need to be aware that, throughout human history, all progress has meant merely making people’s lives easier, and this has always consistently led to job cuts.

The mere introduction of agricultural machinery alone has reduced the need for the number of human hands in the field. However, we do not see anyone hating tractors and cursing over them, as we have increased food production and its quality.

However, what is even more interesting is the statistics showing that robots have not caused job cuts in recent years. On the contrary, according to some data, they even positively affect the number of jobs.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, also stated on Twitter that Tesla’s employees were “underestimated” and that “excessive automation was a mistake.”

In 2018, the Wall Street Journal found that the more robots a country has, the higher its gross domestic product (GDP), and as a result, citizens are wealthier on average. On the other hand, a country that resists automation loses not only new wealth but also new jobs.

This may sound like one big fat lie, especially when we think of robots in the hospitality industry that can bring food to guests or drones that can deliver mail faster and cheaper than mail carriers.

Model of a robot that would help to manage the warehouse. Photo: IFR.
Model of a robot that would help to manage the warehouse. Photo: IFR.

It can be noticed that automation, digitisation, and robotics mean job cuts and losses in the short term. In the economy as a whole, however, they are lowering the prices of goods and services in the long run. Society can be highly resourceful about spending excess money, which can lead to new business ideas, businesses and consequently more jobs.

Less than 100 years ago, British economist John Keynes predicted that people in the 21st century would not have to work more than 15 hours a week because of significant progress. Given that the working week is still 40 hours, is the fear of robotics really justified?

Author: Marko Želko

Keywords: robotics, technology, digitization, progress


This article is part of joint project of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and the Anton Korošec Institute (INAK) Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe. This project receives funding from the European Parliament. 

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union institutions/Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies/ Anton Korošec Institute. Organizations mentioned above assume no responsibility for facts or opinions expressed in this article or any subsequent use of the information contained therein.