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The mechanics of the future

The National Robotarium is the UK's centre for robotics and AI which launched in 2022 | Alamy

The mechanics of the future

A growing population of robots could outnumber humans over the next two decades

What began as a futuristic concept of a far-away world has quickly trickled its way into daily life. Often envisaged in a C-3PO or R2-D2 shape –  beloved robots of the Star Wars series – the robotics industry has become a sophisticated sector with the keys to break many of the divisions currently engulfing societies. 

Like the internet revolutionised the end of the 20th century, robots now hold all the cards to transform life as we know it. Roombas clean our rooms, Thermomix cook our meals, and autonomous vehicles will soon drive us everywhere.

Last year, the International Federation of Robotics revealed an all-time high in robot population figures, with futurologist Ian Pearson predicting that robots will outnumber humans by 2048.

As the industry grows, so does its hold on everything around it. A report from the UK’s Department for Science, Technology and Innovation stated it expects the sector to grow by more than 40 per cent a year within the next decade, with its market value reaching almost £3.5bn by 2030.  

Reacting to the trend, countries worldwide have been waking up to the sector’s potential – Scotland is no exception. In 2021, then health secretary Humza Yousaf announced a £20m investment for robotic-assisted surgery. Focused on cancer treatment, the investment from the now first minister funded 10 surgical robots to improve hospital capacity and allow for less-invasive procedures.

The race is here and now, and all eyes are on Scotland to keep the UK in it.

In 2021, the Scottish and UK governments revealed a £22.4m fund to build the National Robotarium – the UK’s centre for robotics and AI. The site offers state-of-the-art facilities for researchers to explore multiple areas including soft robotics, field robotics, co-bots, and tele-operations.

The centre - supported by Heriot-Watt University in partnership with the University of Edinburgh - offers start-ups the opportunity to trial and research the devices that will soon shape the world.

Speaking to Holyrood, chief executive of the National Robotarium Stewart Miller says he felt his career had “been all along aiming at this job.” 

Formerly the chief technology officer of Innovate UK, Miller joined the team to become a “part of” the revolution, as he specifically wanted to ensure the country didn’t “miss out” on the benefits robotics can have in health and social care.

As a robotic receptionist with a friendly face welcomes visitors, the innovation hot spot offers a peek into what the future can and will look like.

“I can see robots coming, I see the impact that they’re going to have on the world. I’d love to be, I wanted to be part of that,” Miller comments.

Seeking to become the “quickest, cheapest and best way” to develop robotic solutions, he argues that the centre will become the first stop for those interested in the industry within the UK. At the moment, the facilities host around 10 contracts in areas including agriculture, fisheries, offshore wind and medical.

“Most people know very, very little about robotics, but they recognise that they’re going to need to understand more about it in the future. We’re helping companies that have already figured out that they’re going to need to apply robotics in a particular part of their business to explore and risk that on an intense scale”, Miller says. 

Japan has long been the superpower in the industry. As of 2022, almost 50 per cent of all industrial robots traced back to the Asiatic country, yet Miller emphasises that the UK should not focus on leading the world but on “playing ball”.

“People in government love to say that this is a world-leading thing, but we’ve got to be a bit realistic. We’re competing against some big nations that already started and are well ahead of us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t catch up. And that doesn’t mean we can’t play our part. And it doesn’t mean that given the size of robotics globally, the impact of robotics on the economy in the UK and particularly in Scotland, can’t be significant.

“The opportunity is for us to rapidly get ourselves in a position where we’re playing. At the moment we don’t play. We are so far down the league table for manufacturing robots, that it’s just not even worth mentioning.

“So, we could buy a lot of robots and another economy would benefit from that. Or we could try and build up our capability and our capacity. So that, at least to some extent, we can become self-sufficient in the robotics that we want to use,” he adds.

Public perception of robotics often risks successful adoption once the device is ready, making the commercialisation of the industry a weak spot in the supply chain. The robotarium fixes this gap in the market by introducing end users at an earlier stage in the research process. Doing so allows consumers to identify problems and get to know the robot better, hence guaranteeing a first adopter once the product reaches full-scale manufacturing. 

In the UK, more than 11 per cent of businesses are suffering from a labour shortage, with the NHS expected to be short of 360,000 employees by 2036, according to a report by the NHS long-term workforce plan. What is more, Covid-19 showed that in-patient treatment could result in having to choose between saving the patient’s or the practitioner’s life. The WHO revealed at least 80,000 staff members died over the pandemic due to contracting the virus. Miller says that robotics and autonomous systems can lend a hand to a hugely stretched workforce by bridging the recruitment gap and protecting staff against health risks. 

One project developed at the centre recently made a breakthrough discovery by creating a robot with e-skin. Välkky is a teleoperated robot equipped with virtual reality glasses, a haptic glove, and a TESLA bodysuit. The set-up allows nurses to sense a patient remotely. Trialed in a hospital in Finland by tech company Touchlab, the response to the robots “was surprisingly positive”. In other words, it has proved robots can lift the weight off an overstretched system. 

Anyone who summarises the industry as killer robots needs to think again. By building a real-life flat, the facilities at Heriot-Watt have managed quite the opposite. Researchers have developed a fleet of robots which use lidar systems to map their surroundings, allowing those who require assisted living to be self-dependent. The device can follow commands and perform daily tasks many take for granted, such as serving a cup of tea. With over 40 per cent of working-age adults in the UK living with reduced mobility, introducing these across the country would turn a new leaf and give a sense of “self-worth” for many, Miller argues.

However, still arguing that there is a long way to go, Muhammad Imran, professor in communications systems at the University of Glasgow, disagrees with Miller and tells Holyrood there is a “very good chance” for the UK, and specifically Scotland, to become a leader in connected robotics. 
The University of Glasgow has become a hub for this research. Academics on-site are involved in the CROSSBRAIN project, which aims to predict and moderate epileptic seizures. They are developing and testing 0.1mm sized implantable microbots that are implantable in brains. Once injected in the system, these will be controlled by a wearable unit which will monitor electrical activity to detect seizures and modulate their effect through neurostimulation.

Imran adds: “This goes beyond human capabilities because humans have a limited capability of sharing information and ideas and retaining them. This kind of global connectivity can create much more powerful data collection, data mining, data processing.

“Connectivity can make a big difference in how intelligent robots can be and how to behave as an elected cohort. If they are connected, all their learning can be shared in a global space. 

“Scotland is a country of the right scale and size, where connected robotics can be used to overcome many divides. We have a lot of remote areas in the Highlands and Islands, and it will be wonderful if this technology in future can allow people to stay in their communities and become active members of our society. And this could be also a trigger for bringing a lot of high-tech multinational companies to come and make Scotland a central advocate for making future contributions with this technology.”
Both professionals shared concerns about the lack of regulation for the sector. Earlier this year, the Scottish Government revealed its 10-year national innovation strategy, with a vision for Scotland to be recognised as “one of the most innovative small nations in the world by 2033”. The document outlined plans to develop a robotic cluster, but Miller says this was “not enough” and lawmakers will have to play “catch-up”.

“To some extent, you’re lighting a fire by not looking at it. So simple things like as a community in Scotland, importing lots of Chinese vacuum cleaners, and lawn mowers. Are we going to be able to put standards on that? Are we quite happy with any building standard with any level of safety?”.
Imran specifically warns about the dangers AI powered robotics could cause. 

“So, we are making a strategy so that we are preparing for a future with AI where AI cannot harm society. But intelligent robots can do much more harm than AI can do on its own. So not having a policy about responsible research and innovation in the robotics area does not make much sense.”
Envisaging what the industry can replace, but more importantly, the opportunities it can provide, the robotarium also debunks apocalyptic myths, toning down the fever-pitch fear of a jobless future. Tangible evidence of the World Economic Forum’s recent claim that within the next two years technology will create 12 million more jobs than it takes.

“Jobs that exist right now won’t exist in the future. But I think there’ll also be new jobs made available. Robots will automate the things that we don’t want to do, you know, those dangerous things, the dull, repetitive things, the dirty jobs. I think the most important thing that gets overlooked is the potential for robots to help people do the job they do know, but more efficiently,” Imran says, adding that robots would “spare more time” to enjoy life allowing for a “better work-life balance”.

Miller describes the centre as a good basis for a “cut and paste” approach across the UK, where robotariums can fix local needs, as well as build a coordinated approach to tackle national challenges. 

“There’s only so much we can do. So, if we were looking into the future, I would like to see a sort of cut-and-paste approach to what we’re doing here, replicated around the whole of the UK, or something done, that means that we have an economy that’s based around robotics,” he says.
“I’ll freely admit, we’re not enough. We’re a drop in the ocean. We can be open for 10 years at this size. It’s not going to be enough. We’re going to need to do more of this to meet that demand.”  

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