Are we ready for a robotic revolution?

Daniel Jones, Faculty Manager of BPP University Business School discusses the latest surge in robot development, commenting on how robotics might help us to deal with the crippling demands on our health service and what the implications might be for human workforces.

“In April 2015 it was announced that NHS doctors and nurses at the new South Glasgow Hospital will be joined by some unusual colleagues. It was revealed that robots will be working alongside the professionals to provide a manual workforce, getting around in tunnels and separate lifts to transport laundry, equipment and medication across the campus. The twenty-two robots, or Automated Guided Vehicles, will be provided by Swisslog, the Swiss technology company responsible for manufacturing automation solutions for forward-thinking hospitals, warehouses and distribution centres. Despite the being a UK first, South Glasgow Hospital is not the first medical centre to consider employing a robotic workforce, indeed a hospital in Prague has been using AGV since 1995!

The argument for employing robots in our public services is compelling, it would prevent injuries to a human workforce, not to mention the immeasurable time-saving benefits. With constant pressure to deliver more for less in our healthcare system, adopting machines to reduce the cost of operations seems inevitable.

It seems hard to imagine anything other than a metal-cladded, stiff-moving machine who replies in stuttering recorded answers but just like us, robots come in all shapes and sizes. Take Nao, a 58cm robot produced by French robotics manufacturer Aldebaran Robotics. Nao was recently trialled in Japan by the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, at its central Tokyo branch in the hope that the multilingual robot will be able to assist foreign customers during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  It currently speaks Japanese, Chinese, and English but only delivers pre-recorded responses. Whilst Nao looks like it’s stepped right out of Toy Story, there are robots unsettling life-like.

Humanoid robots are devolved to look and behave like humans, presenting us with a difficult question: how would we cope living and working alongside machines that are blend so convincingly into our society? Yang Yang is a robotic machine designed to have a life-like human appearance. It has been developed by Shenging Shanghai Industry (SSI) in collaboration with Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University, a Japanese robotics expert who has worked on the robot for over twenty years. Although the machine is far from being human, its makers have pondered over how the robot would find its place in human society.

Finally there is Romeo, one of the latest robots to come from Aldebaran Robotics. Romeo is a research robot created through the collaboration of laboratories and companies like Aldebaran. This 140-cm humanoid robot is hoped to eventually able to provide assistance for the elderly or those who are less mobile. Its height and stature means it is able to open doors, climb stairs, and reach objects that its owner might not be able to.

The realities of the healthcare system are that where demand continues to succeed supply, increasing amounts of technology will be inevitably needed, from robots to remote consultation and diagnosis via smart phones.  We are likely to welcome such technology as the only feasible solution to growing healthcare needs.  However, such a warm welcome may not be extended as far as other sectors where a human workforce would be replaced by technology purely in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness!”

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