Robots and automation can't be at the cost of people's well-being

It is not too late to rebuild trust in technology as we move in to the era of quantum computing and the metaverse

Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer speaks with a schoolgirl at home, connected with a "Buddy" tele-education robot during a visit at Jules Ferry elementary school on December 3, 2021 in Ormesson-sur-Marne, near Paris.  AFP

At DHL’s warehouses in the US there are 1,500 robots working this Christmas, double the usual number as the company wants to make sure deliveries reach on time during a busy period.

Bringing in the robots is the company’s way of maintaining efficiency amid supply-chain disruptions that are a feature of the global economic rebound following the Covid-19 pandemic. More humans also have been brought in but people are no longer able to do the work unaided by technology.

In Abu Dhabi, at Amazon’s planned 175,000 square-metre fulfilment centre, expected to be completed by 2024, automation will be a central feature too, for example.

A Huawei employee playing table tennis with a robot at the Huawei Health Lab in Dongguan on December 14, in China’s southern Guangdong Province. AFP

The use of robotics and automation is everywhere, not just in the logistics sector. Robots are being used in the fight against climate change, to develop treatments in medicine and to make films, to name a few. Softbank’s Pepper robot is even greeting guests at a Tokyo quarantine hotel who are Covid-19 positive. In Colorado, a robot called Beomni has been treating patients as part of a pilot study at a care home for the elderly. Toyota's purpose-built city near Mount Fuji will showcase automated cars and robotics for housing. Robots are also working on preparations for next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics.

In the Dubai International Financial Centre, there is now a special court to deal with disputes related to technologies such as robotics.

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We need balanced regulations in place and the necessary infrastructure to ensure well-being of humans is paramount

A YouGov poll released this month said that a majority of UAE residents would not accept automated doctors or teachers.

"One could argue that understanding of AI in general is limited, as humans straddle belief systems ranging from deep skepticism to bubbling enthusiasm for its potential ramifications for humankind," the report's authors wrote.

Automation presents new risks to a deeply connected global economy, of course. For example, an error in one of Amazon's automated computer programme’s triggered outages across the digital economy this month, it said.

“They don’t explain what this unexpected behaviour was and they didn’t know what it was. So they were guessing when trying to fix it, which is why it took so long,” Corey Quinn, cloud economist at Duckbill Group, told Bloomberg News.

And there are concerns in terms of the battlefield with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres this week in Geneva calling for consensus on establishing limits on the use of autonomous weapons.

The next generation points the way of things, however.

In Gaza, at a private school, a locally made robot, called Mr Robot, is helping the children memorise lessons, teaching them about electric circuits.

Then there are the images from Expo 2020 Dubai, of children happily mixing with a robot, which remind me of my own children's excited reactions when meeting the many robots that greet visitors, deliver food and help with security. The rest of us who are older should be ready for the reality that the robots are coming.

Which means we need to put balanced regulations in place and the necessary infrastructure to ensure well-being of humans is always paramount.

So far automation has had a broader impact in terms of job losses in manufacturing than, arguably, anything else. So, why would anyone believe that increased automation will help create opportunities? This is at odds with the widely-held belief today that businesses must be more people-centric and reduce inequality. Given today's realities, as stated in examples above, people are more likely to presume automation will not be to their benefit.

There is also the concern with regards to climate change and sustainable economic growth will robots add to our energy burden or help reduce our environmental impact?

At the moment, the pace of change is relatively sedate compared to what is likely to come. We have a window to make sure that the answer to such questions supports a better future for everyone.

Technology is a tool but the robots are only as innocent as their programming. We have seen that this past decade; algorithms deployed by big tech have prioritised the accumulation of users above other concerns, such as protecting the mental health of users and the rights of vulnerable sections, such as teenage users of technology.

A kind of reckoning is here at last with a slew of law suits from media companies in the US targeting Google’s digital advertising dominance and a number of regulatory fines already meted out to big technology firms, including most recently, in Italy, a €1.13 billion anti-trust penalty for Amazon.

It won’t result in wresting any control back from them. However, it is not too late to rebuild trust in technology as we move into the era of quantum computing, the metaverse and ultra-fast internet connection speeds.

This will come quicker if there can be a globally agreed code of conduct for the use of robotics and automation that balances the well-being of people with encouraging innovation and the adoption of technology.

Published: December 15th 2021, 2:04 PM
Updated: December 16th 2021, 6:04 PM
Mustafa Alrawi

Mustafa Alrawi

Mustafa is an assistant editor in chief at The National, and an accomplished journalist and broadcaster, with over 18-years' experience working in the UK, the UAE and the wider Middle East