Automation gets a bad press - again
04 February 2019
There is a problem here in the UK with the way some of the mainstream media portrays robotics and automation. Take for example the Sun’s recent coverage of the latest wearable safety technology being rolled out to warehouse workers at 25+ sites belonging to online giant, Amazon.
The Amazon Robotics-designed Robotic Tech Vest has been devised to protect workers when they need to enter a space usually reserved for automated systems in order to action a repair or retrieve fallen items. Sensors built into the Tech Vest, which looks something like a souped-up utility belt, alert the automated systems to a wearer’s presence, which then down to avoid collision and potential injury. The system works in tandem with existing obstacle avoidance detection.
As part of it’s article “Amazon built an electronic vest to improve worker/robot interactions” US online publisher TechCrunch quoted Amazon Robotics VP, Brad Porter: “All of our robotic systems employ multiple safety systems ranging from training materials, to physical barriers to entry, to process controls, to on-board.
“In the past, associates would mark out the grid of cells where they would be working in order to enable the robotic traffic planner to smartly route around that region. What the vest allows the robots to do is detect the human from farther away and smartly update its travel plan to steer clear without the need for the associate to explicitly mark out those zones.”
Now contrast this with the Sun, which kicked off with the headline “Amazon factory workers forced to wear hi-tech belts to stop robots killing them”. Apart from not appearing to be able to differentiate between a production facility and a warehouse, rather than conveying the message that the Tech Vest is a positive development designed to enhance established levels of safety for workers, the article talks about “metal bots” being a “serious threat to humans”. Of course, there are safety risks in just about every industrial environment, automated or not, but to infer that an automated environment poses a bigger risk simply by nature of it being automated is misleading.
And rather than simply covering the technology, the article goes on to talk of robots taking the place of blue collar jobs, the ‘dark side’ of I4.0, Elon Musk asserting that Telsa over-automated in the creation of the new Model 3, and reports that the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no standards for robotics industry. All in all, it can hardly be considered positive coverage.
OK, the Sun isn’t exactly known for giving a balanced view on anything it covers, so you might ask why should it matter if its overall message on automation is less than positive? After all, as a reader of CDA, you are surely more well versed in the advantages. Well, if the UK was investing adequately in automation, it wouldn’t be an issue. But the stark reality is that the UK continues to lag way behind its fellow developed economies in terms of industrial robot use, indeed Bank of England economist, Will Abel, described British automation as "pretty rubbish”, going on to say that "below average" use of robotics is leading to a higher proportion of GDP going to the labour force.
And while negative news stories citing killer robots coming for everyone’s jobs are certainly not the only reason the UK fails to invest in automation, they definitely don’t matters, so maybe it’s time some of mainstream media took a step away from the sensationalist headlines in favour of a more balanced view.