Many of us recognise robots from fiction movies. Recall the terminator? Robots are not coming. There are already here and while they are, there is panic around the world over stealing jobs that have, for long, been the preserve of men and women.
In the Future of Jobs report 2018 released by World Economic Forum, trends showed growth in robot technologies including stationary robots, non-humanoid land robots and fully automated aerial drones. There was also a mounting interest among businesses around the globe.
In Uganda, there is a growing interest from learning institutions and technology companies. Take for instance, the unmanned vehicle in Tony Oyana’s office, a robot designed by university students.
“We are now building a prototype. It is just a robot but what we want is that it is attached to cameras and one can send it where they do not want to send a human being. So it can then send back information automatically because there are places where you have emergencies and you may want to send an unmanned vehicle like this one,” Mr Oyana, principal College of Computing and Information Sciences Makerere University, explains.
The college is now developing a curriculum where it can introduce assembling of these robots for secondary students pursuing science subjects.
“We want to move away from traditional experiments. Kids at that age like to do such things and if they are able to assemble them, they grow through it and become better,” Mr Oyana says.
At Uganda Flying Labs, the interest cuts across the entire robotics industry. They are using drones to do aerial surveys. Soon, they will be using robots to deliver HIV medication in hard to reach areas including Kalangala district.
“Kalangala has a number of islands surrounding it and one has to use a boat. We discovered drones could do a better job to send the medication to those health centres. It is faster and is easier, so it is a matter of prefabricating materials that can be used for the drone,” Ms Tinah Mutabazi, coordinator Uganda Flying Labs, says.
In agriculture, the company is deploying drones to spray crops and do crop health analysis.
They are also supporting humanitarian work through surveying refugee camps using robots.
“Refugee camps are huge so it is basically to fly over to do planning adequately. For instance, where to put up a school, a well or even shops,” Ms Mutabazi says.
The 2018 World Economic Forum report explains that the adoption of robots differs across sectors with 23 to 37 per cent of companies preparing to invest in the technology.
It must be recalled that robots are thought to be more resourceful than humans in accomplishing some tasks. In the construction and manufacturing sectors, they lift heavy objects more quickly and safely. They work without tiring so do not take breaks. They focus on a job and complete it without distraction.
The report explains that a lot of the automation much talked about takes place at the level of specific work tasks, not at the level of whole jobs.
It is believed nearly two-thirds of today’s job roles entail at least 30 per cent of tasks that could be automated based on currently available technology, only about one-quarter of today’s job roles can be said to have more than 70 per cent of tasks that are automatable.
There is much more and there are forecasts that replacement of human labour will be a consequence of developments in automation.
“While the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s wave of technological advancement will reduce the number of workers required to perform certain work tasks, responses by the employers surveyed for this report indicate that it will create increased demand for the performance of others, leading to new job creation,” the 2018 World economic report reads in part.
Ms Mutabazi does not believe robots will eliminate current jobs. Instead, she describes robots as enablers of jobs and if anything, they were needed yesterday not today.
“They complement what is in existence. They just make work easier. They are efficient, precise and you get your information is real time. But when you have surveyors on ground, they take long to bring information,” she explains.
People can fight automation, some say, as they would any disruption. In her experience, she says some people believe drones might not give information as accurate as say satellite technology.
“The drone does not fly alone, someone has to program it. What is going to happen is that we are going to downsize jobs not eliminate so there will be a few gadgets to help us do work quickly. If you want to do a good job, you can have some surveyors on ground too,” she says, adding, “The surveyors have to train toward using this technology, understand how to use the images and analyse them alongside their rudimentary methods.”
Analysis by the 2018 WEF report indicates a fall in demand for jobs that require manual skills and physical abilities, skills related to financial management as well as installation of basic technology and maintenance skills.