Robotics can be a 'revolution' for EU economy

Robotics could be the key to enhancing European competitiveness, but workers must be protected, writes Mady Delvaux.

By Mady Delvaux

15 Dec 2014

Horizon 2020 aims to emphasise excellence in science, industrial leadership and tackling societal challenges. Robotics, through a public-private partnership, has been identified as one of the flagship initiatives within Horizon 2020 to secure Europe’s global competitiveness. Indeed, robotics represents one of the most relevant technological innovations of the current century, a revolution that could impact the economy and society twofold.

Countries that invest more than others in robotic applications will develop a strong industry in the field, and will soon acquire a relevant strategic advantage over latecomers and other players, who nonetheless will be making use of such devices. The advent of these technologies will also profoundly modify the societal structure, also - but not only - by reshaping the labour market.

EU regulations are either unclear or non-existent in the field of robotics. The first challenge lies in setting out clear definitions. Whereas the first robotics revolution of the 1970s saw the emergence of industrial robots, the current second robotics revolution is built around inter-connected service robots.

Robotic applications are now very different from one another, ranging from automated vacuum cleaners to prosthetic limbs, personal robots, driverless vehicles or surgical robots. Differences are often more relevant than similarities. Addressing these differences unitarily appears challenging.

"Whereas some studies argue that highly robotised economies are net job creators - Germany is often used as an example in this case - other studies claim that robots will destroy jobs by replacing human workers"

First generation industrial robots were contained in a ‘cage’ to avoid any contact with humans. Second generation robotics are now moving ‘out of the cage’ to directly interact with humans. Consequently, issues such as liability rules and insurance, standardisation and regulation of human enhancement are recurrent for new robotics.

The good news is that Europe is leading the production of high-end robotics. We have a first-mover advantage here. China, the biggest market for robotics, is heavily investing in robotics technology to be able to compete with Europe, Japan and South Korea in the short-term. The US is doing the same.

With increased competition, Europe faces many challenges such as brain draining, a lack of economies of scale at EU level, underinvestment and limited collaboration between universities and industry. Furthermore, Europe has demonstrated over the last few decades that it has struggled to transform its innovations in the area of new technologies into commercial success.

In Europe, public opinion is generally afraid of robotics. The main fear is that robotics will steal people’s jobs. The impact of robotics on jobs is a real concern and studies are unclear about their effect. Whereas some studies argue that highly robotised economies are net job creators - Germany is often used as an example in this case - other studies claim that robots will destroy jobs by replacing human workers. Other studies predict that the reduction of production costs through robotics will encourage large corporations to relocate their production lines to advanced economies.

I believe that it is up to decision makers to drive awareness on robotics and inform the public. We must create a sound EU legal framework, providing the necessary economies of scale and competition for the robotics industry and enabling it to flourish. This will allow for the emergence of a real value chain and multiply economic benefits.

At the same time, we need to protect workers and consumers and their fundamental rights.

Finally, we have to reflect on an even more ambitious investment plan to boost the EU robotics industry and to enable our industry to remain a global leader.

I am looking forward to putting robotics high on parliament’s agenda.


Read the most recent articles written by Mady Delvaux - EU robotics rules: right time to address ethical issues


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