Automation and Robotisation

Position Paper | Year 2016
Automation and Robotisation
Towards a more inclusive society
Class of Technical Sciences
Towards a more inclusive society

The fear that automation and robotisation will drastically influence the structure of our society, by which unemployment will/may significantly increase, is widespread in the many available studies, predictions and popular press articles. The shrinkage of the total available work volume and a shift in the distribution between high-,medium- and low-skill jobs, are indicated as the main consequences. The unrest is amplified by the ongoing trend towards globalisation of the society and its economy, characterised by offshoring of companies, social dumping, and the like. Globalisation aspects are not taken into account here.

To put the described trends into perspective, the Class of Technical Sciences (KTW) of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts (KVA B) has established a working party. This working party has produced a document, number 46 in the series KVAB Standpunten, where the vision of KVA B on the problems mentioned above has been articulated. The aim of this exercise is to inform the general public as objectively as possible, by giving insight in the debate that is raging worldwide, thereby trying to debunk some myths, and to formulate a series of recommendations to the different stakeholders of the ‘triple helix’ (research, education, industry) to face the stated problems, and to respond adequately to the opportunities that emerge from the new technologies.

It has been concluded that:

  • The panic messages in the popular media about ‘the invasion of the robots’ and its impact on employment and on the potential and limitations of the emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, are often exaggerated and deserve some reservation.
  • Because robots are by far not yet approaching human intelligence, many tasks and jobs will remain reserved for people for a long time to go. Kurzweil’s Singularity point is still far away and Moravec’s paradox stating that “tasks that are trivial for men are difficult for robots and vice versa” will remain
    valid for a long time. Indeed, manipulation tasks are (much) more difficult to automate than pure information processing tasks.
  • Innovation can be a powerful engine of employment, in different ways: (i) by causing productivity growth through automation, (ii) by creating new markets with new innovative products, (iii) via new business models. The interaction mechanisms between innovation, productivity and employment are complex and the effects are difficult to quantify and sometimes contradictory.
  • Innovation, under each of its forms, should be stimulated by all parties of the triple helix (government, research and education, industry), not only to increase productivity, but primarily to stimulate development of new products and processes, in order to increase employment and to enhance or establish the high-tech industrial commons that are the cradle of succesful innovation.
  • The distribution of employment over the different job contents undergoes drastic changes. This results in job polarisation by which the demand for medium level jobs decreases, while high-level and low-level jobs face an increasing demand. Job polarisation is a consequence of the fact that manual
    and cognitive routine jobs are easy to automate, contrary to complex manual jobs which are much more difficult to robotise. Moreover, tasks that require general intelligence (processing of new information, solving unstructured problems) are still very difficult, if not impossible, to automate.
  • Presently, the introduction of robots in industry poses no real threat to employment yet. Its influence is still marginal. Robots still have too many shortcomings to repel humans in a substantial way from the production process. We have to prepare ourselves however, as research is progressing, for a more massive inroad of robots into the production process, by designing our factories for the unexpected.
  • Next to being a potential threat for employment, robots also provide unseen opportunities in our striving towards a more inclusive society. Medical and service robots do not only contribute to human welfare but they have the potential to create a new industrial commons in Flanders, able to stimulate
    innovation and employment in a new high-tech discipline.
  • Creativity and systems thinking should be the foundations of our future education system at all levels. The STEM2 -approach, systems theory, mechatronics, design, … are important subject areas to be taught to substantiate this vision.

 

Standpuntwerkgroep Robotisering

Herman Bruyninckx
Paul De Grauwe
Hugo De Man
Joris De Schutter
Jan Denys
Philip Dutré
Ludo Gelders
Robert Gobin
Maarten Goos
Albert Husniaux
Hubert Van Belle
Rik Van Brussel
Achiel Van Cauwenberghe
Fred van Houten
Hendrik Van Landeghem
Willy Van Overschée
Jean-Jacques Vandeberg
Jos Vander Sloten
Bram Vanderborght
Joos Vandewalle

Available documents

Author

  • Rik Van Brussel
  • Joris De Schutter

Co-author

  • Hugo De Man
  • Ludo Gelders
  • Bram Vanderborght
  • Joos Vandewalle
  • Robert Gobin
  • Willy Van Overschée
  • Hubert Van Belle
  • Herman Bruyninckx