Liverpool Echo’s Alistair Houghton investigates how Liverpool’s robotics and sensor specialists are transforming the way we work.
The robots are coming – but will they take all our jobs?
Robots have been used in big factories, like JLR’s huge Halewood plant, for many years.
But as technology gets more advanced and smart technology gets cheaper, more companies are looking at automating their work.
Most jobs will be changed by technology. One estimate shared by Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson is that HALF of all jobs in Liverpool won’t exist in a few years’ time.
Physical robots could do work that’s currently done by humans in fields from agriculture to farming, while sensors could also do work that has been done by people.
Driverless cars, buses and lorries could transform the world of transport.
White collar jobs could also be changed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology that could automate many processes that have been done by humans, for example in law firms.
That doesn’t necessarily mean all those people will be out of work – it could just mean that the kinds of jobs people do will change.
One of Britain’s leading robotics companies is CNC Robotics, of Aintree.
Its boss Madina Barker said: “I think there’s still a lot of negativity in the UK. The perception is still that automation and robotics take jobs.
“Actually as far as we’re concerned, that is not the case.
“Robots actually do processes that probably aren’t very nice for humans to do. And that’s really what they’re for.”
Meanwhile trade unions are trying to make sure workers don’t lose out in what’s become known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Sharon Graham, executive officer at Unite, said: “There’s going to be a lot of money made from automation – an eye-watering amount. We want to make sure workers get a piece of the pie this time around.”
So Liverpool and the UK need to adapt to this changing world – and work out exactly what the jobs of the future will look like.
We’ve spoken to some of the UK leaders in robot technology, based here in the Liverpool city region, to find out what all this technology could mean for you.
From James Bond and Star Wars to Burberry
Madina and Jason Barker’s company was inspired by James Bond – and today its robots do anything from making Star Wars models to helping chicken farms.
CNC Robotics, based near Aintree racecourse, helps companies use robot arms to make things.
Its customers include prop making firm BGI Supplies, which has used robots to make models for films in the Mission Impossible and Star Wars series.
Jason himself used to make props for film and TV. His brainwave was to realise that robot arms could be programmed to do the same things as a traditional – but more expensive – CNC milling machine.
His wife Madina, who now runs the business, said: “Basically he’d worked on a Bond film and there was a robot with a laser on the end. And Jason made the prop arm and decided that he was going to buy himself a robot and make it do the same thing as a CNC machine. So that became his pet project.
“Everybody at the time said there’s going to be no demand for machining with robots. But now there’s lots of demand.”
Madina said CNC uses similar industrial robots to those seen in big factories such as JLR Halewood. But instead of using them for welding or putting things together, CNC programmes them to cut and shape things.
They can be used for one-offs – like the prop models made by BGI Supplies which is now on its third system. Or they can be used for repetitive work, like making aeroplane seats.
Madina said: “There’s all kind of different multiple heads you can put on to them to make them do different things.”
A CNC robot was even used in a massive art display at fashion chain Burberry’s London store.
A robot in a box was at the centre of the three-storey scaffolding structure created by artist Graham Hudson. Visitors could have their bodies scanned before the CNC-programmed robot carved an exact replica of their body part. The artist called it “the ultimate modern selfie”.
Robot turned a chicken tray washer into a computer programmer
That sounds very high-concept, but Madina used one simple example to show how robots could make jobs better.
“You wouldn’t think that farmers would be into robotics,” she said. “But one of our customers owns a big chicken farm and I think he was cooking something like 40,00 chickens a month.
“And one of his staff was there with a jet-wash cleaning trays. Eight hours a day.
“So we now have set up an automated process whereby a robot is doing that for eight hours a day rather than a human. So that person now has not only been upskilled to become a robot programmer but they’re also now deployed elsewhere within the business doing something that’s less repetitive and messy.
“There’s still this whole perception that robots take jobs. And actually they’re really there as an extension of us, if you like. They’re doing something that actually we wouldn’t want to be doing.”
Iron Man-style “exoskeletons” and Pokemon Go-style glasses
With his visions of robot “exoskeletons” and augmented reality glasses, Anthony Walker is passionate about how AI and robots could make our working lives better.
Anthony is strategic manager for support scheme LCR 4.0 at Liverpool John Moores University and has worked with dozens of businesses to help them find high-tech solutions to their problems.
One robot technology he believes will become more common is the “exoskeleton” – a suit people can wear to do their jobs.
At the moment the most famous such exoskeleton is fictional – it’s the one worn by Tony Stark in the Iron Man comics and films.
Some exoskeletons, or “power suits”, have been built to allow paralysed people to walk.
In the future, Anthony believes, factory and warehouse workers could soon start wearing more advanced exoskeletons. That could keep them safe and allow them to carry heavier weights.
It’s like something out of a sci-fi film,” he smiled.
“It gives you additional power. It makes you an augmented operator. It’s still the person, but it’s enhanced. It will help movement.”
Anthony also suggested that workers on production lines could all be given augmented reality glasses that display instructions in front of their eyes as they work.
“It’s like Pokemon Go,” he said, referring to the 2016 game where you can use your smartphone to spot Pokemon creatures in the real world.
“It’s not about replacing the human operator. It’s about upskilling the operator. There’ll be less waste, fewer mistakes, right first time.”
Anthony and his team have also modelled what a “farm of the future” might look like, including an automated driverless tractor, a survey drone to watch crops grow, and sensors that can monitor if cows are healthy. The farmer is still in charge, just in a different way.
Anthony said: “It’s about changing roles. Instead of doing traditional farming, they’re now using data and technology.
“People’s jobs will change. They might become production engineers or data scientists.
“Automation is changing the world. But we don’t expect it to take jobs. We expect it to complement the human element.”
The gold building changing the way we work
Liverpool is a centre for robotics and sensor technologies that are changing the way we work.
The LCR 4.0 scheme – pronounced Liverpool City Region Four Point Zero – aims to help local firms take advantage of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
Existing firms are also playing their part. CNC Robotics, for example, is supporting LCR 4.0 and is developing a skills academy for engineers who want to work in robotics.
Meanwhile a new £20m project, Made Smarter, has been launched to help local small firms get automated.
Sensors are also changing the way we work, by allowing companies to keep a closer eye on their work by automatically monitoring anything from temperature or humidity.
In Liverpool the Sensor City building, known for the gold circuit boards on its walls , aims to become the centre of Britain’s sensor industry by helping companies develop new ways of using sensors.
It’s been open for a year and has worked with students and businesses on 45 projects in areas from healthcare to sport.
Its interim executive director Dr Joanne Phoenix said: “Liverpool City Region is innovative by nature, so there are many new and existing companies coming up with pioneering ideas every day. It’s our job to make those ideas a reality.”
LEGO production line shows what Speke firm can do
Another big name in LCR 4.0 is Speke firm Brainboxes, which develops computer systems to improve the performance of factories and production lines.
Brainboxes joined CNC at last month’s Manufacturers Leaders’ Summit in Liverpool to launch the Made Smarter scheme.
It built a little LEGO production line to show off one of its little brainbox computers that monitors a production line.
Brainboxes managing director Luke Walsh said the UK was falling behind countries like Germany in its use of technology.
And he said: “If we’re not careful we might lose the competitive battle.”
Like Madina at fellow Merseyside firm CNC, he was optimistic about what technology would mean.
He said: “It’s not about removing jobs. It’s about improving the performance of the business so you can deliver faster, better, and at higher quality.
“That means you can get more business off your customer. You can do more than you could before.”
Robots could create more jobs
The Made Smarter team has an upbeat message – robots and automation could even CREATE jobs rather than destroy them.
The £20m Made Smarter scheme is offering “intensive business support” to small firms in the North West that want to upgrade their operations.
Donna Edwards, director of Made Smarter North West, proved her point by telling the story of Rochdale firm Crystal Doors and its robots.
“They had someone painting their wood frames,” she said. “But then they got in a robotic arm to do the painting.
“Their productivity improved. The number of doors they were producing went up. The quality was consistent. As a result they’ve had to put on extra shifts to keep up with the increasing orders they’re now seeing.
“He’s virtually doubled his workforce as a result.
“That’s some change, And it’s not big expensive kit. It’s a robot arm painting something.”
Donna understands that some small firms may be reluctant to invest in technology, but says they might need to do it just to hang on to the trade they’ve got.
She said: “If they’re supplying large automotive manufacturers, aerospace, or food and drink – those sectors are automating. Therefore their volumes are increasing and that’s driving the supply chain to produce more.
“If they don’t automate too they could lose that business or just get left to one side.”
Like Madina of CNC, Donna says automation could mean that workers get better jobs than the ones they have already.
She said: “It isn’t all bad news. People might not lose jobs. Some might. But equally people will be doing something new.”
Unions say workers MUST get their share of the benefits
Despite all the optimistic words from businesses, it’s not surprising that many workers feel nervous at the prospect of more automation in the workplace.
So trade unions are also having to think hard about what the increasing use of robots and AI actually means.
Sharon Graham, who is leading the study of automation and robotics at Unite, said her members were worried about potential job losses. But she says that if unions are prepared for the battle, then workers could even benefit from the changes.
“We’re not saying there aren’t opportunities,” she said. “Of course there are. We just want to make sure workers can avail themselves of them.”
One suggestion is that if more jobs become automated then workers shouldn’t lose their jobs but should instead see improved
Sharon said: “Why can’t we look at different ways of working? Shorter working weeks? Better retirement policies? We’ve got to redress the balance.”
One suggestion is that all people could be paid a state income whether they work or not – the so-called Universal Basic Income.
Sharon, however, says people still want to work.
She said: “In old language when you pay people not to work, we have a word for that – the dole.
Unite isn’t just waiting to see what happens.
It’s consulting with shop stewards to find out what’s actually happening at their businesses. And it’s also applying political pressure in the UK and internationally, as it says the Government needs to get ready for the age of automation.
“In Germany they have a different attitude because they build the robots,” Sharon said.
We need to ask our Government questions – are we prepared (for automation)? How can we get prepared with training etc?”
Similarly, fellow union Community has teamed up with left-wing group the Fabian Society to launch a two-year Commission on Workers and Technology to understand how workers will be hit by automation.
The commission will be chaired by former Labour cabinet minister Yvette Cooper. She said: “It is vital that action is taken now to ensure changing technology doesn’t widen inequality and to make sure all workers feel the benefits.”
How artificial intelligence is helping council work smarter
It might be unlikely we’ll see robot arms in council offices any time soon. But one senior councillor believes artificial intelligence is about to start changing the way councils work.
Liverpool council is the latest UK local authority to start offering information via Amazon’s Alexa device.
Right now you can ask the device questions about, for example, when bins will be emptied.
“People will be able to use its AI to ask a question and get an answer. People will be able to get the information much more quickly than rather than searching online or contacting us.
“Over time we can teach it to become much more interactive. People will be able to report things, or make inquiries. It’ll deal with things much more efficiently and be much better for people.
“We’ve already seen a shift from people wanting to come into an office to find details to people ringing up to people going online. This is the latest iteration of that.”
How technology can keep people healthy
In Japan, researchers are looking to see if robots could be used to look after the country’s growing elderly population.
That may be a step too far for some. But Cllr Noakes says sensor technology, as showcased at Sensor City, could have an impact on other government services from health to social care by allows carers and doctors to keep an eye on patients remotely.
He said: “Between some of the universities they are developing sensors that monitor where people fall at their home.
“It’s not obtrusive. Nobody is filming them.
“If an elderly person has a certain number of falls then they can end up in hospital for a long period of time. But if you can detect them falling one or two times – it might only be a stumble, they might not even remember it – then we can make an intervention quicker, and we can see how we can help them.”
Cllr Noakes said he had been talking to senior doctors at Alder Hey about how sensors could help sick or injured children to recover more quickly.
He said: “One reason they keep children in hospital is so they can better monitor them.
“Ideally the child would be at home because they get better results. But they can’t take the risk because they can’t guarantee they’ll be monitored properly.
“But using IoT and AI they could create monitoring systems, so the children can go home where they’re more likely to get better.”
Again, Cllr Noakes says, it’s not about technology taking jobs – but about technology helping people to do their work better.
What does it mean to be human in the age of robots?
Some of this talk gets quite philosophical- if robots can do our work and AI can do our thinking for us, what does it even mean to be human?
Thankfully, there are people in Liverpool looking at those deeper issues.
City centre arts body FACT is taking part in the Future World of Work scheme, aiming to “cut through the science fiction” to work out what will happen to jobs.
FACT itself is working with businesses through the Activate programme, alongside the LEP and LJMU. Activate has helped dozens of creative and digital businesses adopt new technologies including AI, AR and machine learning.
And it is running an 18-month programme where artists study what will happen to the way we work. That will all lead up to an exhibition at the Wood Street venue in mid 2019.
Thomas Grogan looked at the future of journalism in a world of “fake news”, while Hwa Young Jung looked at how social care could be affected by AI and robotics – and created an improvised night of theatre based on her findings.
Roger McKinley, head of innovation at FACT, said there were lots of questions those artists could answer.
He asked: “What will our relationship with technology be? Will it increase the gap between rich and poor?
“What role does a legal secretary have when AI can do their job in seconds? What job does an editor have when AI can do it in seconds?
“We’re on the cusp of the data revolution. Human beings are in danger of becoming mere data carriers in an internet of all things.
“If we don’t want to be ants in the internet of all things, then we need to think quite hard about how we calibrate the way we work.”
Those questions sound doomy. But Roger is actually positive about what the future holds, describing a lot of the concerns about AI as just “heat and fear”.
The robot revolution is only just beginning. Liverpool is leading the way, and it’s going to be an interesting journey.