Beyond the 21st century: going truly digital in Europe with robotics

Source: A. (Andrus) Ansip i, published on Thursday, November 10 2016.

When robots first entered the workplace, it was on the factory floor; the first industrial robot was installed in 1961. The world has come a long way since then.

Today there are many different types of robots designed for specific purposes. In the home, in the factory; for transport and logistics, environment and agriculture, healthcare, sports, search and rescue.

Robots can be used to replace and complement humans in dull, dirty or dangerous tasks like inspecting petrochemical containers and power lines, or sorting nuclear waste. In healthcare, robots can analyse patient data, improve diagnostics and support surgeons in critical interventions.

Robotic fish - 'green robots' - can swim through harbours to identify chemical pollutants or leaks from oil pipelines.

Staying underwater, an EU-funded project - subCULTron - is developing more than 120 robots to collect environmental data in the Venice lagoon and help to preserve this world heritage site.

These turbid waters are challenging for underwater robotics due to their currents and habitat fragmentation.


subCULTron, a Horizon 2020 project

The autonomous 'swarm' of underwater robots, the world's largest, is bio-inspired: aPad robots floating on the surface, aFish robots swimming in shallow waters, aMussel robots covering the seabed.

Robotics is a fast-developing growth market where Europe is already a world leader. It plays a significant role in the emerging data economy and the Internet of Things.

Robots create increasing amounts of machine-to-machine data, whose handling and processing will require top-quality data analytics.

They are also immensely important for Europe's manufacturing industries.

Advanced technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are driving what some call the "fourth industrial revolution". They have the potential to transform industries, raise productivity, efficiency and competitiveness - with a significant social and environmental impact.

In a 2015 report, Bank of America estimated that the robots and AI solutions market will grow to $153 billion by 2020 and boost productivity by 30% in many industries.

But, despite Europe's dominant position in global robotics, our own industry has been rather slow to make use of these technologies. This challenge is addressed by the European Commission in our strategy to build a Digital Single Market and also in the April blueprint to digitise European industry.

Naturally, with emerging sectors such as these, it is not all plain sailing. There are ethical, legal and safety issues. And there are inevitable effects on the workforce.

Some fear that a robot will take their job. While digitisation and automation replace some jobs, we have also seen entirely new jobs created, along with a rise in demand for others. So it is hard at this stage to say whether the net effect on jobs is positive or negative.

In any case, technology advances will require a certain "reskilling" of a major part of the workforce.

There is keen and rising demand for people with varied and specialised skills - and we need suitably trained people to fill the vacancies. Despite rapid growth in the ICT sector, Europe suffers from a skills gap where there could be a shortage of more than 800,000 skilled ICT workers by 2020.

On policy, the European Commission promotes research, job creation and innovation through better and safer robots. A top-quality scientific base will help to push the limits of robotics technology and put the results to good use in real-life applications, in turn making robots more useful to people.

That is why robotics research is taken very seriously. The EU is home to the world's largest civilian research and innovation programme for robotics and AI: a budget of up to €700 million for 2014-20, bolstered by an extra €2.1 billion of investment committed by the European robotics industry.

It is backed by SPARC, the Public-Private Partnership for Robotics in Europe. This partnership between the European Commission and robotics community aims at European leadership in robotics technology, robotics-enabled businesses and services to raise EU competitiveness and productivity.

Looking ahead, our laws and rules must be flexible enough to keep up and adapt to the fast-moving world of digital technology.

On one hand, regulation must guarantee privacy, safety and the protection of personal data. But on the other, it must not be so heavy-handed as to stifle innovation.

The economic opportunities are huge and Europe cannot afford to miss out. That would be the opposite of what we want.

Robots are here to stay and a strong robotics industry is key to Europe's future competitiveness.

Another blog soon.