New robots, old debates

The recent news that pioneering British firm Dyson is to launch its first robot vacuum cleaner has captured the imagination of industry-watchers. The product – the Dyson 360 Eye – incorporates a 360-degree camera and infrared sensors to identify obstructions, and users can control it via a smartphone app.

The machine – not the first vacuum-cleaning robot to hit the streets – is due to first go on sale next year in Japan, where Dyson is already the vacuum cleaner market leader – an incredible achievement for entrepreneur James Dyson in a land renowned for its futuristic devices and technological innovation.

The high-profile arrival of the 360 Eye has sparked yet more conversations about the potential role robots might have in our lives in the future. These same debates about robots displacing jobs or reducing human-to-human interaction were going on over 40 years ago when the BBC’s flagship science programme Tomorrow’s World reported on the latest technologies and inventions of the day. This was the age of the Twilight Zone and Blake’s Seven when, with very little digital technology in our homes, the things we saw on television formed our idea of what the future would look like. The robots we envisaged then were more akin to the automaton serving up Smash or R2D2 than the sleek, minimalist machines that we see entering the market today with promises of freeing us from domestic drudgery.

Today, the US seems to have embraced robots more than us over in the UK and there are a whole raft of consumer robots now available from machines who sift through the cat litter to remove any mess to mobile alarm clocks who move around the house if the owner presses snooze too many times, forcing them to get out of bed to find it and turn it off – how annoying is that!!!

While the market for professional service robots, such as those used for bomb disposal and in assembly lines, is relatively mature, the consumer market is less developed although some think this is the year when things will take off.

Meanwhile, US-based think tank – the Pew Research Center has been canvassing experts on what they think the impact robots might have on our work lives over the next decade. Around half believe they will displace jobs and lead to greater inequality, the optimistic half say this new technological revolution will create more jobs that it will do away with. A proportion also think robots will force us to “reassess our society’s relationship to employment itself—by returning to a focus on small-scale or artisanal modes of production, or by giving people more time to spend on leisure”. New robots, old debates.


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