Robot workers

Gerhard Hope , October 15th, 2011

Probably the strangest news to emerge this past week has to be the report that Abu Dhabi plans to open a factory next year to manufacture life-sized robots to be deployed at ADNEC.

This follows a successful trial run of the REEM humanoid robot from PAL Robotics at the exhibition centre earlier this year. Based on the outcome of this trial run, ADNEC placed an order for 20 robots. As a result, PAL Robotics plans to establish a local manufacturing facility.

Jorien Guijs, marketing manager at Pal Robotics, explained that the main application of the REEM robot is at exhibition centres and shopping malls. I assume the aim is to replace the FM workers at these facilities who traditionally trudge around with cleaning equipment.

However, it is open to debate how effective a robot will be with a top speed of 5km/h, and probably little finesse to avoid sticky situations like chewing gum on the floor.

Quite coincidentally, I am reading Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson at the moment, a lurid dystopia where all our machines and automated systems – from driverless cars to vending machines to elevators and building management systems – gain mass sentience, with the sole purpose of getting rid of humanity and restoring the planet to its natural balance.

The book is by a gentleman who you think would know better, as he has a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon in the US. Then again, he has penned another tome called How To Survive a Robot Uprising.

Could the Abu Dhabi report be a rare instance of a positive portrayal of robot technology in the media and public awareness? Sadly, this seems to be more of an instance of wish-fulfillment than scientific reality.

The immediate implication that springs to mind is whether or not robots can replace low-skilled workers in other sectors, such as construction. The answer to this question seems to be no at present, and will remain no for a long time to come.

Sweeping at ADNEC is one thing, but the REEM robot is unlikely to be able to function on a typical construction site. The tasks there may be equally repetitive, but what about flexibility in moving about and climbing up and down, or handling tools and operating equipment?

It is a fallacy that such robot workers may be cheaper to build and deploy than their human counterparts. One only has to think of the R&D effort that has gone into the REEM robot to date, and how much more needs to be invested before the technology is perfected (if ever).

Ultimately this story probably says more about the value we place on human labour than it does about our current state of technological progress. A leading contractor recently told CW that human resources remains the major challenge to access a difficult market like Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom is actively promoting local empowerment through its Nitaqat programme. This poses a particular challenge to contractors, consultants and suppliers looking to get in on the ground in Saudi Arabia.

Other countries in the region like Kuwait and Oman have also stated their intention to develop their local labour and reduce their dependence on foreign workers.

The reality is that labour is probably the most important component of an industry like construction, where brain and brawn combine to produce the urban environments that shape and define our daily lives.

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