Do robots help or hinder sustainable development?

Jul 09, 2022

(News from Nanowerk) A new study takes stock of the advantages and disadvantages of robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations (UN).

RAS change the world. However, until recently, the opportunities and threats they present had not been systematically considered in relation to their involvement in achieving the UN SDGs. A prospective analysis conducted with partial support from the EU-funded MEMMO and PERSEO projects has now assessed the impact of RAS on the achievement of the SDGs.

The research results have been published in the journal Nature Communication (“Achieving Sustainable Development Goals through Robotics and Autonomous Systems”).

“Robotics and autonomous systems are here to stay and will fundamentally transform the way we interact with each other, technology and the environment. This transformation offers many potential benefits for sustainable development,” observes the study’s lead author, Dr. Solène Guenat of the University of Stuttgart, Germany, in a news item published on the University of Leeds in the UK. “However, realizing these benefits while minimizing unintended consequences is a complex challenge,” continues Dr Guenat, who started the research in Leeds. “Early identification of possible negative impacts along with early collaboration and ongoing dialogue between stakeholders will help us seize opportunities while avoiding pitfalls.”

The foresight analysis involved 102 experts in robotics, autonomous systems and SDGs from 23 countries around the world. Experts’ responses in online surveys, focus group discussions and workshops were used to determine the main opportunities and threats of SAR.

Key Opportunities

The researchers identified five key opportunities that need to be considered when developing, deploying, and managing RAS. This includes replacing humans in tasks that are dangerous, repetitive or for which labor is difficult to find or retain, and supporting human activities, for example by reducing human workloads in case shortage of workers.

Participants also felt that ARS had the potential to foster innovation by accelerating R&D and to improve access by transforming current transport systems and enabling safer access to remote and/or hazardous areas. Finally, RAS would be able to improve automated monitoring and data collection to support and inform decision-making.

Main threats

Four threats that could hinder the achievement of the SDGs have been identified. First, SARs could intensify existing inequalities by being unaffordable for many countries and reducing the need for low-skilled workers. Second, they could have a negative environmental impact due to the energy required to deploy them at scale, the resources used to build them, and the pollution created to use and dispose of them. Concerns have also been raised about RAS diverting resources from proven approaches to achieving the SDGs and inadequate governance that could lead to ethical issues around the use of data.

Lead author Professor Martin Dallimer of the University of Leeds says in the article: “There are already promising ways to mitigate some of the identified threats that robotics and autonomous systems could present. For example, when it comes to issues of inequality, there is a clear need to empower more women and people from diverse backgrounds to engage in robotics development. This, combined with increased engagement of engineers with sustainability professionals, would ensure that robotics and autonomous systems are developed and deployed while respecting the needs of many different groups. Indeed, appropriate mitigation measures to counter the potential negative impacts of robotics and autonomous systems would, by their very nature, contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

MEMMO (Memory of Motion) ended in June 2022. The 4-year PERSEO (European Training Network on PErsonalized Robotics as SErvice Oriented applications) project ends in December 2024.

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