Andra Keay of Silicon Valley Robotics Visits Greece, Says Robots Won’t “Steal” Our Jobs

(AP Photo/Brandon Bailey)

In Greece to take part in the Digital Disruption Sessions during the Delphi Economic Forum, the Managing Director of Silicon Valley Robotics Andra Keay agreed to an interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency about the coming “robot age” and its implications for our lives. As she noted in the interview, despite some spectacular technological advances that have been made, the picture in ordinary households is resolutely less spectacular and the days when there will be a robot in every home are still some decades away.

“Like William Gibson said: ‘The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.’ It will be several more years before we reach the levels of penetration achieved by smart phones,” she noted, pointing out that smart phones made their first appearance 30 years ago.

She also dismissed scenarios that robots will deprive people of jobs, predicting that they will actually create new jobs that do not necessarily require high levels of expertise. As she said, most robots need maintenance and good care, while in some cases they will continue to need human operators.
According to Keay, the penetration of robots in daily life will take decades rather than years. As with all new technology, she added, only a few people will have access for the first 10 years until it gradually starts to spread and is finally everywhere.

On robot-human communication, Keay said this was now rudimentary and likely to remain so for a considerable time since humans communicated using much more than just words, using intuition and experience to understand another person’s intentions and actions. Robot learning, by contrast, was “narrow,” she said.

“This kind of thinking is impossible for a robot, it is very hard to develop,” she said, noting that major research projects had devoted large amounts of money and resources to developing robotic and AI “common sense” in the last 30 years without success.

On the possibility of robots becoming “self-motivated” so that they can act without being programmed or be able to express emotions, Keay described these as “difficult technical problems” that were at least 30 years away from being solved but also pointed out that robots could do amazing, useful things for the world without being either autonomous or having emotions.

She pointed to the need to increase world food production as farmers aged and land became less available, noting that robotics could well be the only solution, or in areas such as caring for the elderly and sick. Robots could take over all the boring, dangerous and “dirty” jobs that people now did, such as heavy lifting or repetitive actions, leaving them free to do other things.
“Robots can gradually make work places safer through the use of automation. I believe that we can make jobs more pleasant,” she said.

The process of deploying robots will be slower than people feared, she added, since in order to have a big impact there had to be a large number in use and this meant increases in their manufacture, design, transport and maintenance.

For the next generation, she predicted, life with robots will have a similar impact as the introduction of power tools and their role will be that of “smarter power tools”. She noted that construction workers a few decades ago had to climb scaffolding and do work using hand tools. The introduction of power tools made their work easier but the workers still had to climb on the scaffolding to use them. With robots, the workers could stay on the ground and do the work remotely, with robots gradually improving working conditions for people, she said.

Andra Keay is the Managing Director of Silicon Valley Robotics, an industry group supporting the innovation and commercialization of robotics technologies. Andra is also founder of Robot Launchpad for startups, and cofounder of Robot Garden, a new robotics hackerspace.