Robotics – a brave new future for our kids?

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Recently the Financial Times ran an excellent series on the impact of robotics on business and society which we cannot recommend enough. It reminded us once again of the importance of our work at MissionTech to inspire young people to pursue a career in ICT. Robots have been around for years, most notably used in auto industry manufacturing so why the big fuss now? In truth, the changes underway are not just about robotics as we have known it in the past (think R2-D2). The real paradigm shift is the rapid development, convergence & pervasiveness of a cluster of technologies namely:

  • Artificial Intelligence - specifically here we are talking about advances in machine learning or the ability of a machine to learn by the use of complex algorithms that can proactively analyse data and make predictions about the computer should do next. This is a shift from the past where software engineers precisely programmed the machine, now they are equipping the machine to (re)program itself iteratively.
  • Cloud Computing - here we are talking about the treasure trove of data and software applications available to us on demand.  The software and data is stored in giant data centres which we never see or experience though we draw from and contribute to the common data source every day.  Consider how well Amazon or Netflix tracks your on line habits to 'serendipitously' offer you just what you want and when you might want it. Or consider that every little piece of data you post on Facebook for your friends to see becomes the property of Facebook which they can then use to create the most powerful advertising machine ever built. Did you know we create 1.8 million Facebook 'likes' every single minute?
  • The Internet of Things - in the past the internet was a network of humans creating and sharing data. Now 'the things' are crashing the party. The data created by machines and shared via the internet is dwarfing human created data. This in turn is reinventing the meaning of internet and creating all sorts of new opportunities. Its no longer an inter connected network of people, its an interconnected network of things and machines. For example, imagine if that deep freezer in your garage was connected to the internet. It could send data on temperature and motor speed to a 3rd party who could then alert you of signs of potential failure before it packs up completely. Imagine also if tiny RFID chips could be sewn into your clothes so that your washing machine would refuse to start with a red sock in the machine with your best white cotton shirt. And speaking of washing machines - consider the Amazon button integrated to your washing machine so you can immediately re-order your favourite detergent?
  • Mobile technology - the rise of mobile phones globally is also having a profound impact. Should we still even call them phones because they do so much more than that? There are now more people on earth with telephones than bank accounts. In developing markets its often as if people have skipped right over the fixed base of communications offered by hard wired land line networks to move straight to mobile networks backed up by cloud computing. Did you know the Chinese government in part measures economic health by monitoring the flow of people with hand held devices as they move from western villages to eastern manufacturing zones and back again?
Map of Chinese labour migration patterns as tracked by personal mobile phone usage

There are also socio-economic factors at play here. Consider the following:

  • The relative collapse of hardware prices for computer equipment and the all important sensors
  • The competitive impulse of fast growing Asian economies who look to robotics for a step change in production efficiency and to higher value economic production. Today the robotics market is worth $71 bn per annum and that is set to double by 2019
  • There is also pressure on wages in western economies with recent rises in the minimum wage in the UK and some US states. Ironically, this may spur on investment in robotics as investors seek to replace lower economic value adding jobs with robots.
  • By 2050 there will be another 1 billion people on the planet, the race against climate change will likely be accelerated posing significant global socio-economic challenges

So what does that mean for us in the UK? The picture remains somewhat uncertain but the rise of artificial intelligence is undoubtedly a game changer. In the past robots were built to replicate and endlessly repeat carefully orchestrated manufacturing processes such as welding and assembly in the auto industry. Advances in AI are allowing robots to eat further and further into lower value jobs where routines maybe more variable but can become predictable over time. Jobs in services such as fast food, banking, chauffeuring even legal and accounting could be the next frontier. Workers in the future may well be divided into those commanded by the computer and those commanding the computer.

The rise of robotics is unlikely to bring forth a huge population of congenial R2-D2s. Instead we are likely to see simple machines carrying out simple tasks and then learning on the job using machine learning techniques of artificial intelligence. That learning is harnessed via the Internet of Things and the machine is upgraded or replaced with even more powerful capability over time.

Surrey Satellite Technology, Guildford

The problem is the global labour force is still relatively unprepared for these economic shifts and the changes needed in society as well as the education system in order to adjust well according to Martin Ford, author of the Rise of the Robots. Thankfully, the UK is perhaps in a better position than most economies and in our area close to Guildford and South West London we are even more fortunate. Witness the rise of high tech / smart technology centres in our area. Surrey Satellite Technology in Guildford - a spin off from the University of Surrey now controlled by EADS with a minority stake held by the University of Surrey. Surrey Satellite Technology is a world leader in the design, build and launch of small satellites for remote sensing, telecommunications and navigation technologies. The race to space is now heating up once again, this time the cold war military objective has been replaced by market forces. Sending humans to space will continue to be the exception rather than the rule. Our ability to send smaller, more powerful, more intelligent machines, sensors and probes to space is opening up a whole new vista for human discovery in the machine age.

Or consider the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking which produces an upgrade to its Formula 1 car at a staggering rate of 1 every 17 minutes. McLaren has pioneered the use of telemetry with cars bristling with sensors to collect all sorts of information which is painstakingly analysed towards improving performance. Indeed, it was this drive for performance that led to McLaren's partnership with British Cycling and the use of sensors on cycle and cyclist in David Brailsford's endless quest for 'marginal gains'.

McLaren Technology Centre, Woking

These companies are hugely successful on the global stage but their success can only be sustained by their ability to attract and retain the very best engineering talent. But talent for these high value businesses does not appear out of thin air and business is sounding increasingly worried. Last year a PwC survey of saw 84% of UK CEOs citing the talent gap as a key strategic threat to their business compared to just 54% in Germany. 67% of UK CEOs believe it must be a key priority of the government to create a skilled and adaptable workforce for the long term, a 7% increase on the previous year.

In reality the education system is challenged to keep up with both continuous changes to the curriculum and rapidly changing external needs. A 2014 report by the Royal Society criticised a culture of 'teach to test' in our schools system together with continuous short term changes to curriculum robbed our teachers of the time and ability to teach to inspire. The report called for greater in school collaboration across STEM topics and greater collaboration externally with employers and STEM experts. The report also acknowledged a lack of appropriate lab time for students to experiment for learning. Crucially, the Royal Society made firm recommendations for parents to do much, much more to inspire STEM learning for children both as part of the formal education process but also informally for education enrichment.  The report also raises some serious alarm bells about the lack of diversity in students pursuing studies in STEM subjects particularly for girls and BAME kids.

So what's all this got to do with MissionTech? As founders, we've had a grandstand to the evolution of these technologies for years to their current point of convergence. We've seen the wave of disruption with upstarts unseating legacy technology companies. We've seen what has worked and what's failed. The truth is that the barriers for entry have fallen. It's easy to access knowledge, it's easy to access hardware components and its easy to access manufacturing capacity - at least, easier than ever before. What makes the competitive difference is having the skills to compose and apply technologies to real world problems and to do it quickly. What makes a difference is having the skill to work easily within high performing teams to solve problems and to have the confidence to fail, learn and move on - to be comfortable with trial and error prototyping. Most of all what defines innovation over invention is to build stuff that works, that addresses a real problem and to build technologies which people are willing to adopt.

MissionTech - Learn to Program with Lego Mindstorms

We have put much thought into our robotics courses and we believe we have hit the right balance in helping children understand the full picture of technology rather than just teaching to 'code' in isolation from the real world. We are teaching children to develop software to effect real changes in the physical world. The Lego Mindstorms platform is a powerful tool for teaching not only how to learn to develop software code but more importantly to use those skills to innovate. With intelligent though simple to compose algorithms we show kids how to program robots to even play autonomous, competitive football. It's machine v's machine relying on nothing more than the sensors the kids the equip the machine with and the crucial intelligence they add with the algorithms they compose. We'll be running this course at George Abbot school in Guildford and St George's College in Weybridge this coming half term from May 31 to June 3 and again over the summer break.

We are very proud of the course as it cements in learning of key principles of technology development and innovation. But as always on the look out for new ideas for technology and education. Drop us a line or leave a comment to share your thoughts or register with us to stay in touch with us.

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