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Learning to live with robots

Do Not UseDo Not Use 27/05/2016 By Rory Cellan-Jones
Nao robot © BBC Nao robot

I spent a couple of days this week in the company of robots.

InooRobo robot: Robots are getting better at interacting with their human masters © BBC Robots are getting better at interacting with their human masters

They seemed friendly, they were keen to make conversation, and they could do a few quite clever things.

Cotton mill: Not all technologies mean skilled staff get displaced, suggests research © BBC Not all technologies mean skilled staff get displaced, suggests research

But I came away from the Innorobo exhibition in Paris with few fears about the prospect of an imminent robot takeover.

Perhaps that is because, as we discuss in today's edition of Tech Tent, the robotics industry is now anxious to improve the image of its products.

All the talk in Paris was of cobots, or collaborative robots. Until now, industrial robots have been expensive single-purpose machines, locked behind cages, designed to replace humans doing a repetitive task like welding in a car factory.

But cobots are cheaper multi-purpose devices that work on a production line alongside humans, who will teach them many different tasks. I was shown how to program one of these cobots, Sawyer, to move a bottle from one place to another - nothing complex but a demonstration of how flexibly a small business could use a robot like this. This kind of cobot, the argument goes, will be an ally, not an enemy, of manufacturing workers.

Outside factories, however, robots are poised to do lots of jobs in service industries, from providing information in supermarkets to leading elderly people through exercise routines.

Pepper, the French-made companion robot now owned by Japan's SoftBank, is preparing its assault on Europe, with a clutch of firms showing off applications. Among them was a Pepper estate agent, an application from the UK's Emotion Robotics.

The robot did a perfectly good job of taking me through the process of selecting a few houses to view, before calling up a real life estate agent - at which point I made my excuses and left.

There is something rather charming about this particular humanoid robot - but I was not convinced that it provides a more efficient service than simply tapping on a phone or tablet.

Job prospects

And there was evidence this week that the threat of mass unemployment as the robots take over may have been exaggerated. An Oxford University study predicting that over a third of jobs in the UK were under threat from automation over the next two decades has been the source of much of the anxiety.

But economists at the OECD have taken another look at that research and reached a much less worrying conclusion. Whereas the Oxford study examines entire professions - and effectively wipes them out as the robots advance - the OECD researchers say only specific tasks within them may be at risk.

"Occupations labelled as high-risk occupations often still contain a substantial share of tasks that are hard to automate." That leads them to conclude that just 9% of jobs across OECD countries might be subject to automation.

That is a point also made by Tom Davenport, author of a book called Only Humans Need Apply. He tells Tech Tent that, while the advance of robots may lead to increased inequality as low-skill jobs disappear, their impact may arrive more slowly than predicted. He points out that despite the arrival in banking of ATMs and other innovations, there are the same number of bank tellers in the US as in 1980.

Anyway, all these new robots will need skilled technicians, just as in the first industrial revolution - back then, "if you knew how a spinning jenny worked you could easily get a job in a textile factory." In other words, stop worrying about the Terminator, relax and learn to love and care for a robot.

Hear more about all this in our latest episode of Tech Tent, our weekly radio show on the BBC World Service.

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