THE BLOG
09/11/2017 10:03 GMT | Updated 09/11/2017 10:03 GMT

Robots In Cities

This widespread uptake of autonomous vehicles will re-shape our cities further. With seamless, and instant, on-demand autonomous vehicles, why own a car? Why pay for parking? Why devote so much precious urban real-estate to inanimate metal objects? An MIT study estimated that Singapore could reduce the number or vehicles by two-thirds with full automation.

Robots are coming. What will they mean for urban life? I doubt they'll be the perfections of the human form we see in the Blade Runner films. They'll do particular, specified, tasks very efficiently. They are already common in closed environments - in factories and distribution warehouses. Out on the city street they'll be focused initially on the dirty, dull and dangerous tasks: unblocking drains; monitoring tunnels; cleaning tall buildings.

As well as maintaining the urban infrastructure, robots will build our cities. As the off-site manufacturing of buildings increases, it will be automated. And on-site, robots may replace the construction worker. In Amsterdam, last year, I saw a metal canal-bridge being 3-D printed. In Dubai, last year, they 3-D printed an office with a cement printer in just 17 days - with a saving of about 50 percent on normal labour costs.

Robots will increasingly shape how people and products move in our cities. There has been a lot of publicity about Amazon's investment in delivery drones in the skies. On the ground, Tesco have also been piloting a delivery robot and Ocado a driverless van.

The big investment is in the self-driving car. The UK Government wants the country to lead in this technology and is funding on-street trials, with various levels of automation, in cities across the country. Step-by-step, year-by-year, such vehicles will penetrate the market and the city until they'll become the norm within 20 years.

This widespread uptake of autonomous vehicles will re-shape our cities further. With seamless, and instant, on-demand autonomous vehicles, why own a car? Why pay for parking? Why devote so much precious urban real-estate to inanimate metal objects? An MIT study estimated that Singapore could reduce the number or vehicles by two-thirds with full automation.

These developments will reduce pollution and free-up lots of space in cities. Multi-storey car parks may become urban farms; pocket parks may spring up on empty suburban streets; new housing may replace redundant expressways.

Autonomous vehicles will also have profound social and economic impacts. What do they mean for taxi-drivers? White van man? Or the school run? As automation changes, or replaces, existing jobs, society will have to adapt fast.

Of course, artificial intelligence and automation will actually augment many human tasks. Humankind has developed over millennia by developing and using new tools. And the doom-mongers underplay the productivity benefits of augmentation. But the transition will be painful for many. What films like Bladerunner do capture well is the underlying societal angst about the rise of the robot. This angst is already partly underpinning the election of populist politicians across the Western world. And I wouldn't be surprised if we see a surge of 21st Century Ludditism - the modern version of the 18th Century textile workers, who smashed machines to protect jobs.

As with previous waves of disruptive technologies, new opportunities will, of course, emerge. Just as the desktop publishing revolution that destroyed print-workers' jobs in the 1980s led to a huge increase in productivity and creativity, there will be upsides. And new policies will emerge: robots might be taxed to pay for pensions; universal basic income - like the one being trialled in Finland - might become the norm. But it doesn't feel like politicians or citizens are well equipped to navigate these changes at the moment. Our more automated cities may also be more uncomfortable places to live.