Towards an inclusive robot society

Are robots taking over? Is automation increasingly common in the industry? Is the concern that robots will replace workers in the short term justified? Can robotisation and automation help humanise labour and increase our well-being? Should we encourage innovation to counter the loss of jobs? Which domains offer interesting innovation opportunities? Is an inclusive robot society utopian? What else can businesses, social partners, schools and research institutions and the government do to bring about the much-needed new industrial fabric?

These and other questions have been preoccupying the media. We have been struck by a sense of fear. People are concerned that automation will drastically impact on the structure of society, as a result of which unemployment will/can rise considerably.

To put this and other hypotheses into perspective, a working group of the Technical Sciences Class of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and Arts (Dutch abbreviation: KVAB) attempted, from an engineering point of view, to outline a few possible implications of robotics and automation on employment and society in Point of View 46. The at times alarming trends we have gleaned from different leading reports are explained and, where necessary, toned down. We point out not only the potential hazards and adverse effects, but also the enormous potential robots and other forms of automation have in our quest for an inclusive society.

Our aim is to inform a wide audience as objectively as possible and to formulate a set of conclusions and recommendations for the various parties of the ‘triple helix’ (government, research/education, industry), so as to address the problem head-on and capitalise on the opportunities offered by new technologies.

Some considerations in a nutshell:

  • The panic about ‘the arrival of the robots’ should be nuanced to some extent when it comes to the potential impact on employment, as well as the scope and limitations of the new technologies.
  • Since robots are still nowhere near approaching human intelligence, a whole set of tasks and jobs will remain in the hands of human beings for a long time. Kurzweil’s singularity point is a long way off. Moravec’s paradox, that ‘tasks that are trivial to people are difficult to robots, and vice versa’, will remain valid for a long time.
  • Innovation in each of its forms should be stimulated, not only to increase productivity but, above all, to develop new products and processes that boost employment and strengthen the industrial fabric in innovative technologies or establish this where it is not yet, or no longer, present.
  • If anything, employment is increasing partly as a result of the productivity increase through innovation. There is a job polarisation taking place, though. Indeed, demand for secondary school leavers decreases, while that for high- and low-skilled workers increases. Retraining or additional training methods should be considered with the necessary criticism. Overqualified staff complicate the issue.
  • To promote the spirit of innovation, schools at all levels must focus on creativity and an integrated perspective on reality. The STEM initiatives (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) are just one of the tools to achieve this.
  • The introduction of robots offers unseen opportunities in our quest for a more inclusive society. Especially the initiatives in the medical and care sectors deserve our support. These new applications are the breeding pond of a new industrial fabric with high-technology spin-offs and new employment in innovative sectors. Flanders is a world leader when it comes to research, but urgently awaits financial support to grow into an innovative Flemish manufacturing industry in medical robotics.

The entire pdf with the full Point of View 46 can be found on:

(Only available in Dutch)

Authors: Hendrik Van Brussel (emeritus full professor at KU Leuven) and Joris De Schutter (full professor at KU Leuven)

Co-authors: Hugo De Man (imec), Ludo Gelders (KU Leuven), Bram Vanderborght (VUB), Joos Vandewalle (KU Leuven, KVAB), Herman Bruyninckx (KU Leuven), Hubert Van Belle, Robert Gobin (KU Leuven), Willy Van Overschée (CIMCIL) and Jos Vander Sloten (KU Leuven)



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