Time to stop droning on about robots stealing our jobs

Will Australia be a leader or a follower in joining the robotics bandwagon?

Graph for Time to stop droning on about robots stealing our jobs

Can you spot which one is the robot newsreader? Image: AFP

Sorry to disappoint, but this isn’t another fear-mongering article about robots stealing our jobs.

It’s become a popular theme in the Australian press, but by now, I think we can accept that the rise of the machines is imminent. Yes, jobs will be shed, but it’s equally fair to say that new jobs will be created.

It’s time to push this debate forward and examine Australia’s role in a robotics future -- one that despite all our raving and ranting, we won’t be able to avoid. It’s an emerging industry, and we should be asking whether we want to a leader, or should we be a fast follower?  

Talk of robotics has escalated in international news in recent weeks, after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- who visited Australia last week -- launched the third of his 'three arrow' approach to economic reform in Japan. As the country suffers from both an ageing population a productivity downturn, Abe is pitching for increased investment in robotics as a remedy.

Japan's enthusiasm for all things automation isn't new. Back in 2000, the country had the highest quota of robots to workers in the world.

In recent years however, more countries have joined the robotics bandwagon. Back in 2011, US President Barrack Obama announced that the US would contribute $US500 million towards research and development in the industry.

More recently, the EU opened a robotics-based funding round for its Horizon 2020 initiative, contributing over €6.5 billion towards robotics-related projects. It’s no surprise then that according to Robo-Stox, which created the first benchmark index to track the global robotics and automation market, the majority of the world’s robotics companies are based in the US, Japan and the EU.

The US and many countries in the EU are set to suffer from similar economic issues to Japan. If you took a gander at the Murray interim report into banking earlier this week, it’s evident that Australia is also in the same boat. Yet, it appears that robotics isn’t being publicly considered as a solution to our long-term problems.

That's not to say Australia's a backwater for robotics. Though the current level of government funding is scattered across multiple agencies, making it difficult to deduct exactly how much is being poured into robotics here. For instance, the federal government funds both the CSIRO’s robotics projects, and through a separate program pours into funds into university-based research. The sector is also the recipient of commercial sponsorships for R&D projects.

Given that we are at trialling unmanned drones, and robotic arms with the best of them, it appears the current level of funding is substantial enough for Australia to least keep up with other developed nations.

To this point, vice president for the Australian robotics and automation association Denny Oetomo says that in contrast to our relatively small population, we "punch above our weight" in robotics research. But, he adds that the level of funding is left wanting if we hope to fully capitalise on this upcoming robotics revolution.

According to Oetomo, who is also a senior lecturer at University of Melbourne, most of this research is undertaken by both the CSIRO and various robotics focused university departments across Australia. These robotics hubs also act as incubators for start-up companies. Ongoing research in the sector is primarily funded by the Australian Research Council, Oetomo says.

According to the ARC’s own data, it has committed around $73 million towards "artificial intelligence and imaging" research projects from 2013 through to 2018. To put that figure in perspective, the ARC has committed around $3.3 billion to all forms of research over the same period.

Though, that calculation should be taken as a rough estimate. As the ARC confirmed in a statement to Business Spectator, many projects in other fields of research -- like medicine or mining -- involve robotics but may not be included in the artificial intelligence and imaging category and that $73 million total. As a result of this the ARC wasn’t able to provide an exact figure as to how much it is investing into robotics research.

And as for the future of robotics funding, the ARC said that it considers applications on a case by case basis and doesn't divulge funding based on idea of keeping up with trends.

While the overall level of funding is unclear, Oetomo says it pales in comparison to overseas programs.

"There is a perception within the government that robots were a hot topic in the 80s and the 90s," Oetomo says.

"But at this point, robotics has taken on their next form. It’s not just about repetitive movements anymore," he says.

But does Australia really need to push ahead in this sector? Apparently not, according to the Grattan Institute’s John Daley.

Most of the economic problems that are met by the rise of robotics are addressed in the Daley’s game changers report, released earlier this year. But it doesn't recommend increased investment in robotics as a solution; possibly to avoid ridicule. Even Japan received flak when it initially proposed that in the future, a rendition of Astro Boy would save the economy.

"We don’t have to be a world leader in robotics, but we have to be quick adopters," Daley says.

"The main game is always going to be how fast we are at adopting what is being done elsewhere."

Oetomo agrees that turning Australia into a 'world leader' in robotics may be unreasonable, but adds that we need to up our investment in robotics to maintain our competitive edge against other nations.

He also argues that we have the talent and expertise to be one of the main countries driving the transition towards advanced manufacturing. This trend has been spruiked as the counter to Asia’s edge on cheap mass production. It basically entails the use of robots and other technologies to drive the production of low volume, high quality goods; goods that still require a particular level of human expertise to produce.

If anything, this is the level of discussion that we need to have about robotics and automation in Australia. It should no longer good enough to shrug this trend off as a job-killer. Globally, billions of dollars are being poured into robotics. A shift will happen, it’s inevitable.

It’s how we position Australia ahead of this shift that’s now up for debate. 

Got a question? Let us know in the comments below or contact the reporter @HarrisonPolites on Twitter.

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