The first Industrial Revolution brought steam power; the second, electricity; and the third, computerisation. The fourth promises just as much, if not more innovation and introduces us to the fascinating world of AI, cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Systems.
This revolution is already well under way and is set to change the labour market as we know it. Like the three that preceded it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will mark a significant change to the working world.
With more than 15 years’ robotics experience under his belt, we spoke with former Robotics Programme Manager for Eindhoven University, Heico Sandee, who in 2015 co-founded Smart Robotics with Mark Menting. Smart Robotics (an employment agency for robots) develops and places modular robots that can be configured for specific tasks.
“It’s all about flexibility,” says Sandee. “If robots can become more flexible, then they can be instructed and adapt to different tasks.”
“Robots still need to become a lot more intelligent,” says Sandee. “At the moment, they only work if they are instructed in a simple way. They can carry out a range of tasks - migrating, checking, packing etc., but only one type of task is open to them. We are constantly developing and robots can now vary the scope of the same type of task, but the next step will be to modify their operational ability so that they can do other tasks and switch between one and another. Then we are really looking at more of a revolution.”
That revolution is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Emerging technology in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing are all combining to drive a change across a range of industries, and this Fourth Industrial Revolution is taking the digital age to the next level.
Klaus Web, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum, describes it in this way: “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanise production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”
“It started very recently, just a few years ago,” comments Sandee. “Many see it as an extension of the Digital Revolution, but there is more to it. We are on the cusp of something huge, no doubt about it - but at present people are talking about it, more than actually doing it. Look at the example of industrial automation; the world is changing fast, but not THAT fast. In real end-user terms, things have been pretty similar for the last decade.”
So what needs to happen to make people do it, instead of talk about it?
“We need to make it simpler for humans to communicate with robots,” says Sandee. “Flexible communication is the aim so that we get the best out of both robots and people.
“Humans will always be the creative, decisive force in the equation. At present we have more physical and of course intellectual dexterity. Robots’ hands are quite one-dimensional: they can do one task. In twenty years or so, however, we think robots will have hands as clever as humans. We are already seeing more robots using accurate 3D cameras and this, combined with the ability to do a larger range of tasks, will widen their scope.”
Does this cause fear that there will be fewer jobs for humans? “I think people do understand that the change is inevitable,” says Sandee. “Robots are changing the workflow and they will continue to do so. This should be seen as an opportunity, however - the human workforce can leave the more repetitive jobs to the robots. Jobs are created as humans work with the robots and retrain and diversify, and companies grow as people become more versatile.
What are the limits?
“At present, robots are hired from us to do one core task: in industry they maybe pack, wrap or inspect,” Says Sandee. “So one robot does one job as part of, or at the end of a production line. When that line is finished, so is the demand for that robot. The aim is for that robot to have the ability to do all those tasks, in order to carry out the whole process, while being managed by a human. Then they can work across multiple lines. The limits are removed.”
What comes after?
“Robots communicating with each other,” asserts Sandee. “It sounds futuristic, but artificial Intelligence is happening. We will never be able to mimic human capacity completely. But the Fourth Industrial Revolution will not really take place until robots have ‘deep learning’ or artificial intelligence. This will enable them to learn from their mistake and improve. Then it will really get interesting. Combining this with IOT means everything is joined up and robots will communicate and learn from each other.”
The scope is huge, says Sandee. For example, in Japan, robotics are commonplace in the consumer sphere. In Europe, we use robotics for industrial automation, with Germany taking the lead with its car industry. The US, in contrast, uses robotics for its defence purposes.
This alone demonstrates the breadth of industries robotics is influencing.
What will be the driving force of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
“Startups,” states Sandee. “Many existing organisations have too much heritage, too many logistical hurdles to overcome, to keep up with the exponential development of robotic technology. Forward-looking startups, however, are using it and recognising its scope from the outset.
It’s a growth industry that is gathering place: startup formation in the UK alone increased by 4.6% in 2015, with 608,100 new businesses started in comparison to 581,173 in 2014.
The number of digital tech businesses, meanwhile, has rocketed 44 per cent, and almost doubled in London, compared to 23 per cent across all types of industry. Their contribution to the economy has grown by a third, compared to 13 per cent across all industries (2016 figures from London and Partners).
“With this growth, training both people and robots is of huge importance,” says Sandee. “We want to develop more skills within robots so that they can quickly develop new applications at a higher level. While training them, we need to create a system that makes a robot multifunctional and easy to use. People can then quickly configure them.
“If anything, that is possibly the largest hurdle to smart robots’ growth. Many people think they need to have high-level computer programming skills to manage them and are perhaps afraid of their superior intelligence - but this is not the case. Yes, they are exciting and intelligent, and the scope is huge; but above all, it is an opportunity.
“Robots will be part of the team, they will be given characters and names. They will provide invaluable services across ranges of industries, working across spheres. The important thing will be for the human employees to appreciate the freedom they are delivering, and work alongside them for the benefit of progress.”
Revolutions seemingly share a common characteristic, which is that at the beginning they are seemingly impossible but after the event they appear inevitable. Organisations’ need to be an aware those revolutions will arrive quicker than most suspect. Those organisations’ without the correct capabilities and technical infrastructure risk being left behind by their rivals. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is expected to bring significant changes to the way we live, interact and do business.
Smart Robotics is an employment agency for robots, developing and placing modular robots that can be configured for specific tasks across a range of industries. Co-founder Heico Sandee discussed the development of robotics and the way in which they are changing the workplace.