Robot revolution gathers pace – but at what cost to jobs?
IN FOOD factories they will trim your sirloins and trusschickens. Assembling electric car batteries will also be firmly within their skillset. And in Japan, in the not too-distant future, they will be serving bank customers, checking-in hotel guests and delivering laundry.
Ever since they took centre-stage in Fritz Lang's dystopian masterpiece Metropolis some 88 years ago, robots have been predicted to replace their creators as more efficient and diligent exponents of human activity.
Now it seems fiction is finally giving way to reality. Cheaper and better robots will replace human labour in factories at a far quicker pace over the next decade, cutting labour costs by an average of 16 per cent by 2025 across the most advanced economies.
Robots - ranging from giant welding machines in car plants to 3D printers - are currently used in only 10 per cent of the manufacturing jobs that they could perform. Within a decade that figure will rise to 25 per cent, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
Much of this growth will be led by South Korea, Germany, Japan and the United States. But among the nations set to be in the vanguard of this automation revolution is the UK, with the introduction of greater numbers of robots expected to lead to labour savings of 21 per cent, and their deployment in up to 45 per cent of automatable activities.
The list of tasks expected to be wrested out of human hands is extensive.
Butchery is likely to be taken over by blade-wielding robots capable of judging the amount of fat and sinew to remove from a joint. Likewise the machining and assembling of car parts, such as batteries or gear wheels. Elsewhere a host of mundane activities such as burger-flipping will be performed by chefs powered by silicon - rather than potato - chips.
Michael Zinser, a BCG partner, said: "For many manufacturers, the biggest reasons for not replacing workers with robots have been pure economics and technical limitations. But the price and performance of automation are improving rapidly. Within five to ten years, the business case for robots in most industries will be compelling."
In some industries that point has already long been reached. In car manufacturing, a spot welding robot costs £5.25 an hour to operate compared to £16.40 for a worker. In electronics assembly, a small robot costs £2.65 an hour to do a job that a human must be paid £15.70 to perform.
British business is also doing well out of it. According to industry figures, nearly 800 robots were sold by UK manufacturers in the second quarter of 2014 - nearly double the figure for the first quarter.
But the flip-side to such glittering returns for efficiency and profitability is what happens to the flesh and blood, Mark I assembly devices.
A study by Oxford University in 2013 found that computerisation in all its forms would put 47 per cent of all American jobs at risk.
When another think-tank asked nearly 2,000 experts last year what sort of impact they believed automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will have on the jobs market, some 48 per cent believed it would eliminate many blue and white collar jobs, ranging from assembly-line work to accountancy.
As Harvard academic Justin Reich, an expert on the impact of technology, put it: "Robots and AI will increasingly replace routine kinds of work - even the complex routines performed by artisans, factory workers, lawyers and accountants.
"I'm not sure that jobs will disappear altogether, though that seems possible. But the jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now."
Others argue that such doom-and-gloom scenarios will not materialise.
The International Federation of Robotics, which represents manufacturers and technology users, claims that up to two million jobs will be created by 2020 through use of robots. The optimistic argument is that automation produces devices that create new areas of human activity and frees up time to be devoted to lower-tech but higher-value pursuits such as artisanal manufacturing.
With Google investing massively in robotics and AI, Amazon preparing to deploy package-delivering drones and defence companies pouring resources into battlefield automatons, robots are here to stay - and humans will increasingly have to grapple with how they want them to behave.
Humanoid helpers: Androids in action
Bob the security guard
Developed by Birmingham University and security firm G4S, "Bob" patrols and compares stored images to see if items have been moved. He roams the university library and, among other duties, checks if fire doors are open.
San Francisco-based Momentum Machines has built a robot that can cook around 360 hamburgers an hour. It can also slice tomatoes and pickles. The company's website boasts that the robot "does everything employees can do, except better".
Nao the bank clerk
Nao is a humanoid robot soon to be released in Japan's biggest bank. The robot is multi-lingual, can respond to human requests and can recognise individuals. It will soon be replacing cashiers at selected Tokyo branches.
One of the most popular industrial robots, costing just £16,000, Baxter can complete simple industrial jobs such as loading, unloading and sorting materials. Built-in sensors allow him to detect people nearby and adapt to his environment.