Automation for the nations

It is National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW), and for once those of us who care about engineering, science and technology might find ourselves pushing at an open door when it comes to grabbing the nation’s attention.


It is National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW), and for once those of us who care about engineering, science and technology might find ourselves pushing at an open door when it comes to grabbing the nation’s attention.

The Engineer can exclusively reveal that in a survey, the UK public chose NSEW as its favourite by a massive margin from a list that included Be Nice to a Banker Day, Endangered Hedge Fund Awareness Week and Retired Fat Cats’ Welfare Month (please give generously… ah, we already have).

We will come clean at once and admit that the above is as phoney as an ex-banker’s plea of poverty, although the result would surely turn out that way were such a poll to be run.

In the current climate, thank goodness the organisers of the event had the wisdom a few years ago to add ‘engineering’ to the title of the former National Science Week, righting an injustice that had left the contribution to the economy of applied science out in the cold for too long.

The laudable efforts of those involved in NSEW will be undermined, however, unless those at the top of government come to terms with the scale of both the challenge and the opportunity involved in placing engineering and technology at the heart of the UK’s efforts first to reverse economic decline, and then to drive renewed growth.

The challenge, as noted before, is to quickly turbo-charge a sector that has suffered through slow neglect during a fragile finance boom. This requires first and foremost a recognition among policy shapers that engineering, technology and science are absolutely essential to our national future.

Even now, we are not always sure that the message has got through. All too often when ministers are asked to spare us from the doom and gloom for a few minutes and name some reasons to be cheerful, they point to the UK’s outstanding musicians, its fine array of film producers and its tremendous record in the field of computer games. All of which would be more than enough to turn a population the size of Leicester into an economic powerhouse but is woefully inadequate to support 60 million of us.

But if technology can be elevated to its proper status the opportunities are immense, and nowhere more so than in the field of robotics, subject of The Engineer‘s latest special themed issue.

As robotics evolves it will begin to touch all our lives far more than it does today, whether through helping to heal us, taking care of us in our old age or, in extreme cases, rescuing us from a disaster zone.

And as Prof Ken Young of the Warwick Manufacturing Group points out (Interview), the potential for robots to automate our major industries has a lot further to go. As sectors such as food production look to become more efficient, robotics will provide solutions that can take over many of the repetitive manual jobs currently done by people.

That could go a long way to making those industries more productive and efficient, but leaves us with the question of what happens to the humans who once staffed the production lines.

Indeed, robotics raises dilemmas that are unique to any field of technical innovation because often we are looking to it to do what we can do ourselves, only better. Which often leaves us asking, where do we fit in? Now if someone could develop a robot banker that never lost a penny of our money or asked for a bonus…

Andrew Lee, Editor