Self-driving trucks, robotic surgical systems for complex remote surgeries - these are just a few examples of robotics that still amaze us today, but without them, the future of both people and industry is unimaginable. According to Virginijus Marcinkevičius, head of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Faculty of Mathematics and Informatics of Vilnius University (VU), almost all of us will be affected by automation processes, as the labour market includes more than half of all professions, one third of operations of which can be automated.
In the VU podcast "Science without Sermons", he talks about the rate of robotization, the competition between robots and humans, which professions are likely to be replaced by autonomous systems, and whether there will be a time when we will be able to stop working.
Singapore is a leader in robotics
The level of robotization in the world is usually measured by the number of robots. "We are seeing a 6-7% increase in the number of robots every year. While in 2013 there were 1.3 million robots in use, by 2018 there were already 2.4 million robots in the world," says the VU scientist.
Another parameter we can measure the speed of robotization is the number of robots per 10,000 jobs. According to the scientist, three years ago Slovakia was the leader in this field with 114 robots per 10,000 jobs, followed by the Czech Republic in the second place. “Meanwhile, in 2020, according to the Lithuanian Robotics Association, we had only 5 robots per 10,000 jobs, while the world leader Singapore has 2018 robots per 10,000 jobs. In Europe, the Germans are currently leading with 277 robots for the same number of jobs."
Although our country is lagging far behind in this area, we can see a significant increase in the number of robotic processes each year, with at least 0.7% more robots per year in Lithuanian companies. 4.6% of Lithuanian companies use robots in one way or another in the process of their operations. We expected that this percentage could rise up to 15% in the future.
Where are robots more efficient than humans?
According to the speaker, robots are now mostly used in packaging, agriculture, animal breeding, food industry, healthcare, automotive industry and electronics. "In a fixed industrial environment, robots can excel at monotonous tasks such as putting an item into a package, sealing it, sorting packages to pallets, labelling products, checking that the correct and undamaged item has been put in, etc."
Robotization is also relevant in agriculture. As the number of population grows and the area of land remains the same, more money is being invested in more efficient, sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture.
“More efficiently and more products from the same area of land and materials can also be obtained through what is known as precision agriculture, which uses precise mapping and mapping of soil parameters to determine the most efficient way to plant the seedlings of a particular plant, and the most efficient way to fertilize and irrigate them for optimum yields. Drone tracking of crop growth then allows farmers to predict yields and set prices, while automatic harvesting, where tractors autonomously harvest crops based on GPS signals, saves human labour."
Robots are also used in animal breeding to automate the milking of cows, or to monitor surplus stock or health status.
He says that the most surprising thing in the medical field is still remote surgeries, which allow physicians working in one country to perform complex operations on patients living in any other country in the world with the help of precision robots. This is offered by the Da Vinci robotic surgery system, also used in Lithuania.
It's hard for a human to compete with a robot
Once asked how the labour market will change in the future and which professions are most at risk of disappearing, the VU scientist says that robots will first replace humans in monotonous operations, but everyone should think about the impact of robots on the labour market. It is estimated that around 60% of all occupations have at least 30% of operations that can be automated. It can be difficult for a human to compete with a robot in certain areas because they never get sick, they don't need holidays, they usually work for 5 years without breakdowns, they are faster, more precise, they can carry out complex tasks, they can lift heavy weights, and they can work in harmful conditions, in a polluted, hazardous environment.”
However, in certain areas, humans outperform robots in the ability to work in unfixed and undetermined environments. “Although robots use artificial intelligence to perform complex tasks similarly or even more efficiently than a human would, they will never be able to offer suggestions on how to improve performance because they only perform pre-programmed functions," an artificial intelligence expert identifies human strengths.
Automated trucks will replace some of their drivers
The need for occupations such as shop assistants, fast-food restaurant workers, data analysts, security guards and even truck and taxi drivers will be in decline, the scientist says. The transport sector is being rapidly robotized because the market is large: a lot of goods have to be shipped quickly, so companies like Volvo, Tesla are developing autonomous trucks, which they do not yet risk to put on the highway with their loads, but solutions like "autonomous truck trains" are being considered, where the driver of the first truck is followed by a series of autonomous trucks behind it, repeating its actions so that it can get from point A to B," he says.
The automation of product delivery processes is also developing rapidly. V. Marcinkevičius recalled how Amazon advertised drones that take orders from helium ballooned goods and deliver them to the customer's yard. Ideas for small 4-wheelers used for meal delivery are also being developed.
The military industry is also looking for possibilities to replace frontline soldiers with robotic troops for the most risky missions. However, so far the majority of jobs (38%) is robotic in the automotive industry.
Quality is the advantage of human labour
Fortunately, the rate of robotization is not very fast. “For over 200 years, we have been using robotic systems as tools, as a means to work, to create products and services more efficiently, therefore they won't drive people out of the labour market so quickly. For instance, in Germany robots account for only 2.7% of jobs, and with a growth rate of around 7% a year, in 20 years' time around 10% of jobs will be robotic. However, whether we like it or not, we will still be competing with robots, and certain skills can help us to create a greater advantage, guarantee success or a higher reward," says Head of the VU Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
From a business perspective, he said, a business is competitive when it is able to produce its product or service cheaper, faster or in a better quality. It would be difficult for us to compete with robots in terms of speed, but human labour will always be cheaper because robots are expensive and require a lot of investment. Robots are also often no competitors for humans in terms of quality, as robots cannot improve themselves and are programmed to perform only a specific operation. However, applying knowledge to non-standard situations, improving the operation process and knowledge, creating high added value by proposing new solutions - that would be a human prerogative.
The scientist is convinced that one of the keys to billionaire Alan Musk's success is creativity, and looking from an educational perspective, the greatest return is achieved from the development of knowledge and the creation of new ideas.
However, V. Marcinkevičius reaffirms that, overall, the number of robots in the workplace is still very small and the impact is not very visible. This is confirmed by a study carried out in the United States, which showed that the increase in the number of robots in the world has a small impact on human wages (0.4%) and increases unemployment by around 0.2%.
He believes that even if robotics has a greater impact on the labour market, people will never become jobless, because job is one of the means allowing people to survive and, at the same time, realize their creativity, needs and ideas, and that a life without job will never be as interesting, or even as possible. Robots vacuum our houses instead of us, help us build them (we are trying to print a 3D house), do physically demanding or monotonous human tasks, and perhaps in the future they will contribute more to cooking, but we will have to generate new ideas, educate our children, and create new technologies ourselves.