Humans have been obsessed with robots for decades. One look at our pop culture will tell you that – from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix. The first appearance of a robot on film, in a serial starring magician Harry Houdini called ‘The Master Mystery’, came the year before the word ‘robot’ was even coined.
But robotics and artificial intelligence have long since moved from the screen to our everyday lives, and the current pandemic is further accelerating interest in the role that robotics, automation and data can play. They will also be key on the road to our economic recovery: We can harness these new technologies to improve – and even save – lives and make our societies fairer and more sustainable.
Robot technology can improve productivity and safety in the workplace. It can increase efficiency and reduce waste. It can become the driving technology behind a new generation of autonomous devices, able to interact seamlessly with the world around them thanks to the latest AI.
Service robots – those conceived to provide assistance to human beings – can have a similar positive effect on non-manufacturing industries, such as agriculture, transportation and healthcare. Here in particular, there is an acute need for rapid and wide-scale deployment of “deep tech” to fight current and future pandemics, while reducing strain on our healthcare systems.
Helping European industry compete on the global market
Europe is already well-placed, in terms of robot production, usage and research.Our robotics industry represents a third of the global market, while European manufacturers produce two thirds of smaller, civilian professional robots. Our robotics science sector is strong, with particular expertise in technologies, such as cooperative robots and ambient intelligence.
Europe also is also leading the ethical debate on the deployment and use of robotics in wider society, including on the potential risks, such as opaque decision-making, discrimination or privacy issues. This is particularly salient for AI, which can help keep us healthy, increase food safety and contribute to combatting climate change.
But as we increasingly move from traditional to smart AI-powered robotics, we need to further strengthen our open strategic autonomy in order to secure our place in diversified next-generation global value chains.
The EU funded one of the world’s largest civilian robotics and AI programmes under our previous Horizon 2020 programme: €700 million in EU funding during 2014-2020 was complemented by €2.1 billion from the European robotics industry.
We will significantly ramp up this focus on robotics and AI research under our successor programme, Horizon Europe – with funding of €20 billion per year this decade on average, public and private investment combined.
The new Public-Private Partnership in AI, Data and Robotics will take this to the next level. It will foster cross-pollination of research within these three communities as well as between industry and users. This will contribute to the overall resilience of the robotics ecosystem.
Regulatory clarity is also imperative and we should aim to lead the way in developing trustworthy and human-centric technology. Strong, open and interoperable standards and efficient certification procedures can provide important incentives to innovation and collaboration, while levelling the playing field and fostering trust in the market.
Making better use of strategic foresight in high-level policymaking
Strategic foresight, the art of developing intelligence about the future to inform today’s actions, can help. It is not about trying to tell the future. But it is about anticipating, exploring and acting – by mitigating our vulnerabilities and strengthening our capacities to make Europe more resilient.
That can be green resilience, where industrial robots can help us reduce waste and increase efficiency as well as sustainability so that we meet our ambitious plans to become the first climate-neutral society by 2050.
It can be digital resilience, where we need to develop a strong ecosystem by investing into our digital infrastructure, exploiting industrial data or addressing regulatory complexities.
And it can be social and economic resilience, where robots help farms in crop monitoring and weed control, or assist surgeons and support patient rehabilitation.
There is however a legitimate concern that the rise of robotics will seriously disrupt existing business models and that millions of jobs – most notably lower skilled ones – might be at risk. While this should vary across sectors and regions, robotics and AI can also help create new jobs in their stead, improved in both pay and quality.
That is why, for instance, we are making sure to close the AI skills gap – with demand for AI-skilled workers already outstripping supply. Educational institutions across the EU are therefore starting to increase relevant study places.
All this shows that the everyday nature of robotics and AI is no longer the illusion it was back in Houdini’s day. With the proper use of foresight, it can help us build the future Europe we want.