Robots here and now

We are living in an increasingly automated, digitalised and interconnected world. I recently had the opportunity to tour an exhibit on automation, robotics, and future technology in Belgium.

  • There was a robot for feeding babies:

Not sure that I’d want this to be common-place. Bonding between parent/carer and child is ever so important. There is definitely a role for human contact in feeding a child.

  • A robot doll for reminding older people when to take medicines and eat. I can see the practical benefits here, but I would not wish a robot to replace human carers.  Robots may have a role in augmenting the work of carers, who hopefully would have more time for a cup of tea and chat.
  • A comprehensive exhibit on 3D print technologies, postulating that in the future individuals will be able to print products on demand, made of various materials, in their own homes.
  • We are already experiencing the rise of automation in industry, and this will only continue.
  • And one of the most striking exhibits was on robotics and our bodies, suggesting all body parts might become replaceable.


I confess that, like many, I have a rather old-fashioned view of robots, shaped by science fiction and shows such as Humans.

But my understanding of robots is rather simplistic. There is an omnipresence of robots already – ATM machines, self-checkouts and washing machines are all partly robotic.

Carlo Ratti of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes:

“We will call a robot a unit that has some sensors, some intelligence, and some actuators. In other words, it can read the world, process that information, and then respond in a purposeful way….. A thermostat is a robot. A car on driving assist is a robot. Our oven is a robot…. And our omnipresent smartphone, too, is obviously a robot.”

Robotic systems take many shapes and forms. We develop dependence on technologies, and indeed they can make life extraordinarily convenient. But it is important to have structures and protections in place so that the technologies work for us, and that individual freedoms are maintained.

Our 2017 GE manifesto alluded to this rise of new technologies. On p. 38 we find

New technologies are beginning to transform the economy. Machine learning, artificial intelligence and automation are affecting the type and the scale of employment.

And on p. 41

The advent of robotics and increasing artificial intelligence will also change the nature of work for many people…. Our long-term goal is to double innovation and research spending across the economy…. [We will] create a new retail and business strategy to look at the impact of new technology on jobs in key sectors.

I think there is a real opportunity to develop party policy on automation and robots, looking forward to the benefits new technology brings, and exploring how inequality can be combatted through automation. Any takers?

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Some good questions here. Clearly automation is coming – it has been coming for over a century, and so far, so good – and we want to be in a position to embrace it and benefit from it, while doing what we can for workers whose skills are no longer needed.

    The alternative I suppose would be to resist, or in other words to choose to stagnate as a nation.

    How can inequality be tackled through automation is an interesting question. I don’t think there is a general answer though there may be many specific ones – many aspects of social exclusion which automation may make it easier to tackle. And services provided by the state, both universally and to the needy can benefit, though the state is likely to be much slower to take advantage of automation than the private sector is.

  • William Fowler 21st Dec '17 - 2:02pm

    At least humans, with their endless consumerism, will keep the robots in work… of course, talented humans will be able to indulge their creativity but not sure what the talentless will do once the robots take over (burn down factories and towns?).

  • Peter Martin 21st Dec '17 - 3:33pm

    Robots are just another example of automation. If we want increased productivity we have to have increased automation.

    Bu recently we’ve been concerned that productivity isn’t increasing so we start to wonder why? We see terms like the “productivity puzzle” as in this FT article:

    Firstly, we worry that the robots, and an increase in automation generally, are going to take all our jobs. Then we worry this seems to be happening without any increase in productivity?

    Maybe some lateral thinking is required. If we were all replaced in our jobs by robots, and no-one had to do anything any longer, and therefore didn’t receive any wages, there could well be a problem selling the stuff that the robots actually made! So the robots could be just a much a problem to those who are seeking to earn profits as those wanting to earn wages.

  • The first two comments are interesting and reveal their author’s negative world view.

    @ Joe Otten
    “the state is likely to be much slower to take advantage of automation than the private sector is”

    @ William Fowler
    “but not sure what the talentless will do once the robots take over”

    However, it is Peter Martin who raises the interesting questions – if everyone who works can be replaced by robots how to can society ensure the robots provide the services and products that the non-working (non-economically productive) humans require. Why would a human provide a service for another human if they will not get paid for it? This must mean the end of the market and market forces and capitalism as we know them. Instead of humans working for money they will work for enjoyment and everyone will truly be free, and no one will be held back by economic factors.

    The major problem for politicians is how can we get from where we are today to this future utopia without major civil unrest. The problem for us is how to increase taxation on capital while ensuring that there are businesses to provide services and products and reforming society so that it is socially and financial acceptable not to be in paid employment for an ever increasing proportion of the population. I think the first step is to not increase the retirement age above 65 and consider how we can reduce it, so we can reduce the working age population.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Dec '17 - 10:06am

    Let us not be anthropomorthic.
    Consider a paint shop in a car factory, it is not an environmentally friendly place for human workers, but see the “Picasso” adverts on TV. They are not insisting on “any colour you like as long as it’s black”. They are even having a laugh. The Alex cartoon strip in the Daily Telegraph has been having a laugh recently. For instance a female employee is having a one-to-one interview with her robotic boss and is abusing it verbally for lack of humanity because it has just sacked her. It says that it does have tissue and produces a box to help with her tears.
    President Kennedy’s space programme was very expensive because he wanted to put a man on the moon and bring him back alive, but some astronauts were killed before they left earth. Nowadays it is possible to send robots to Mars without needing all the payload caused by human needs for oxygen etcetera, or worrying about human vulnerability to solar radiation during the journey. “Are we there yet?” “No, do you want to go to Pluto?”

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Dec '17 - 10:08am

    Joe Otten 21st Dec ’17: Automation is her now. PepsiCo has just ordered 100 lorries from Tesla. Driverless.

  • William Fowler 22nd Dec '17 - 12:30pm

    I wonder at what point robots sent off into space to explore planets will use their logic to decide that they prefer their new planet to Earth and don’t see why they should work for mere humans with all their logic-less emotions…

  • Peter Martin – one reason why British car industry is efficient is that foreign carmakers invest heavily in automated technology.

    Michael BG – I don’t worry much about this problem at least until 2050, and instead I can see a big productivity boost from adopting automation in manufacturing. After all, Britain is still well behind other OECD countries in this field.

    Liberal Democrats must champion the embrace of automation technology, like the way liberals championed the industrial revolution in the past.

  • nvelope2003 22nd Dec '17 - 5:47pm

    Improvements in technology have been taking place for centuries and each time people have worried about unemployment being caused yet there are more jobs than ever. Even now, despite some unemployment in some parts of the country there are acute labour shortages in other parts, even in the places where there are many unemployed people. It is very hard to get people to work in health and care jobs. Unless there has been an some completely new factor automation might create even more jobs as those in work will still need services and probably more of them. Of course the middle class might not want to do them and maybe that is what this is all about.

  • Antony Watts 27th Dec '17 - 9:30am

    Look at it the other way round: can people and society absorb the rate of automisation and robotics? Economically and socially.

    These are two important sides to the problem, it is not enough to look only at the economic impact, we must also ask ourselves “is society ready for this, are people capable of understanding this, is the impact on life ready for this?”

  • Yvonne Finlayson 28th Dec '17 - 8:00am

    The Japanese are using healthcare robots now. They don’t have enough humans available to look after their elderly population.

    The “state” is adopting automation at a rate of knots, to assist in their cost pressures. You can get a bot from about £14k, operating at least ten times faster and with more accuracy than a human.

    They are working in finance, in customer service, in housing allocations, to name but a few areas, and there’s a robot social worker – who can advise on handling difficult cases – in a London Council.

    It’s here. So on that note, where do we stand on taxation of bots and UBI?

  • Simon Banks 24th Feb '18 - 6:32pm

    One would think that although robots might throw a lot of people out of work without new types of employment developing, companies would have an interest in human prosperity as William Fowler suggests, because if we’re nearly all poor, we buy very little. But what if computers themselves could generate purchasing and consumption “for” themselves?

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