Comment: Robotics and AI are the future, but we have to make sure they’re sustainable

Robotics and AI will help us to tackle climate change, but we must ensure we’re doing all we can to make the industry and its supply chain more sustainable, says Steve Maclaren, chief operating officer at the National Robotarium.

National Robotarium

The global market for robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) is set to grow over the coming years at a rate that’s almost impossible to believe. In almost every walk of life, be it small domestic robots, systems that assist in health or home care, agritech, construction, and renewable energy, robotics and AI are playing ever increasing roles.

A quick look at the figures paints a clear picture. According to recent industry reports, the global robotics market is projected to reach $62.35bn by 2030 and the AI market a staggering $3.6tn by 2033. These figures are very encouraging in many ways but within them is hidden an issue we can’t afford to ignore.

As more and more sectors and industries become aware of the potential applications for robotics and AI to streamline their operations, improve safety, and alleviate staff shortages, the need for these systems will mean a rapid increase in production - with all the potential consequences for the planet.

The supply chain associated with robotics isn't well enough understood in terms of provenance of suppliers, sourcing of materials, and the manufacture of materials. We know many of the component parts, for example, come from Asia but we have little or no control over how they are manufactured.

Was it in factories powered by energy sources we're actively looking to diversify from? What is a robot made from and how are they powered? Most importantly, could all of this be more sustainable?


But there’s a dilemma. With a rapidly growing global population we are likely going to increase our reliance on these systems. So how do we transition to these technologies responsibly?

Well, it starts with regulation. The government’s National AI Strategy, published in 2021, recognises the importance of developing AI in a sustainable manner but also leveraging it to support goals like net zero emissions. Key measures include optimising AI systems for low power usage, considering environmental impacts, supporting sustainability research, and collaborating internationally on AI for climate challenges.

Of course, consumers have a key role to play. You might wonder if you’re likely ever to be a consumer of robotics but anyone who owns an autonomous vacuum cleaner, for example, can count themselves in this bracket. Sales of these have experienced a significant increase in recent years. Just like the food we buy, we can all hold to account the companies we're buying from by demanding sustainable practices and clear labelling on products.

Next, if a robot does have an unavoidable environmental impact, then how do we ensure it gives something back? A positive example of this comes in some of the robots working on offshore energy maintenance. Unmanned submersible and surface vehicles are being employed to do remote inspections of wind turbine foundations. Whilst they’re doing that, however, they can monitor and track fish populations and measure the impact on birdlife around that installation. Professor Paul Fernandes, who has set-up the FEAST (Fisheries Ecosystems and Advanced Survey Technologies) research group, is one person doing interesting work in this area. With support from the National Robotarium, FEAST focuses on the sustainable management of marine resources and the development of advanced underwater survey technologies, an example of robotics and AI giving back.

Of course, if we were to really embrace this new technology and develop an indigenous manufacturing capability then we wouldn’t need to import so many of the materials we use from overseas. We must continue to invest in upskilling our workforce in readiness for the jobs robotics and AI will create and yes, we will want to export our tech. Ensuring exporting is sustainable comes back to regulation, with one possible measure being incentivising companies to manufacture and sell in the UK.

Encouragingly, many modern start-ups and entrepreneurs are aware of the need for and potential benefits of sustainable manufacturing and incorporating these principles is already part of their working culture.

I’d point out that AI has a carbon footprint as well. According to research by Savills, the data boom is expected to continue for at least the next five years, with 72 per cent of companies globally set to be using digital platforms and cloud computing by 2026. That means we’re going to need a lot more data centres and they consume a lot of energy - for context, a medium-sized data centre could consume as much as 240 megawatt-hours of energy in a day. I’m encouraged to see some energy businesses examining how they can make data centres more sustainable with consideration being given to how they capture waste heat from these facilities.

By replacing many of the dirty and dangerous jobs we do as humans, robotics and AI will help us to tackle climate change, but we must ensure we’re doing all we can to make the industry and its supply chain more sustainable. As I said, the figures tell their own story.

Steve Maclaren, chief operating officer at the National Robotarium