Robots in the driving seat?

3 min read


Can commuters expect to see a C-3PO equivalent smiling at them from the driver’s seat as their train pulls into Oxford Circus? Not exactly. However, London Underground tube drivers could still be made redundant if Transport for London’s idea of automated trains, which was discussed in a leaked document revealed this week, becomes a reality.

The extent to which robots should be allowed to replace humans and the benefits/implications of using our electrical friends need to be carefully considered in a time when the global economy is struggling and the global population is booming.

If TfL does decide automated trains are the way forward then it could be disastrous for up to 1,500 tube drivers who stand to lose their jobs. Marshall Brain, founder of science website Howstuffworks, believes that over the next 40 years most of our jobs will be displaced by robots as a result of advances in image processing, microprocessor speed and human-motion simulation. On the other hand, automated trains could save the taxpayer money and enable more control in certain areas of the network.

Trains on the Jubilee, Victoria and Central lines of the Underground are already semi-automated and little practical change is needed for them to operate without a driver, while London’s Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is already automatic.

However, human safety has to come into question when hundreds of people are being transported around a labyrinth of tunnels beneath one of the world’s largest cities. A poll on The Guardian website recently revealed 60.7% of tube users would feel safe without a driver while 39.3% claimed they needed a human touch.

Driverless trains could leave passengers stranded in tunnels in the event of a breakdown and that a lack of staff in stations due to the closure of manned ticket offices would turn platforms into a ‘mugger’s paradise’, warned Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Marine and Transport Union.

Trains aren’t the only area where robots and automated systems could replace humans. Google and BAE Systems are just two of the companies looking at the possibility of developing autonomous cars that could navigate their way independently around our roads. Will taxis and buses of the future become automated and if so will their drivers be made redundant in the same way as the London tube drivers may be?

Robots are also increasingly used in the military, most notably in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) attacking sites in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As well as removing military personnel from frontline combat, this brings about a whole string of ethical questions, such as how can a robot always distinguish a civilian from a terrorist and should people have their lives ended by remote control devices, such as drones?

And of course factory workers have suffered job losses from increasing automation for decades - one research group is even developing a robot worker. Factory lines that require continuous, repetitive, tasks to be performed with high precision are an obvious place for robots who can outperform humans by doing certain tasks quicker and more accurately.

It was once thought that we could sit back and relax while robots do the jobs we hate. With the global population now over 7bn, fears that automation could lead to mass unemployment are understandable. But the population is expected to peak in the middle of the century, and we are going to need a workforce to do the low-skilled jobs our aging population can no longer meet the demands of.

What’s more, further down the line, we’ll see more elderly people in society than ever before and there’s already a shortage of carers. The possibility of robots caring for your parents may seem daunting but scientists at Bristol University are already developing anthropomorphic robots capable of providing care and companionship.

Also, the robustness of specially adapted robots and the fact we don’t value them as much as we value humans means that robots can be used to access places we can’t, from the Martian landscape to the crater of Mount Etna and Fukushima nuclear power plant.

For all the problems of automation, many robots can do things that humans cannot or simply do not want to. They provide a wide range of obvious benefits that we would be foolish to neglect. Perhap where we should draw the line is at the point when they begin to start thinking like humans.