Are robots helping or hindering sustainable development?

(Nanowerk News) A new study brings us up to date on the benefits and pitfalls of robotics and autonomous systems (RASs) when it comes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations (UN).
RASs are changing the world. However, until recently, the opportunities and threats they present had not been systematically considered in relation to their involvement in meeting the UN’s SDGs. A horizon scan conducted with partial support from the EU-funded MEMMO and PERSEO projects has now assessed how RASs will impact on SDG delivery.
The research findings were published in the journal Nature Communications ("Meeting sustainable development goals via robotics and autonomous systems").
“Robotics and autonomous systems are here to stay and will fundamentally transform how we interact with one another, 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 posted on the United Kingdom’s University of Leeds website. “However, realising those benefits while minimising unintended consequences is a complex challenge,” continues Dr Guenat, who began the research while at Leeds. “Early identification of possible negative impacts along with early collaboration and continued dialogue across stakeholders will help us seize opportunities while avoiding pitfalls.”
The horizon scan involved 102 experts in robotics, autonomous systems and SDGs from 23 countries worldwide. The experts’ responses in online surveys, group discussions and workshops were used to determine the main opportunities and threats of RASs.

Key opportunities

The researchers identified five key opportunities that need to be considered while developing, deploying and governing RASs. These include replacing humans in tasks that are unsafe, repetitive, or for which labour is hard to find or retain, and supporting human activities, for example by decreasing human workloads where there is a shortage of workers.
Participants also considered RASs to have the potential to foster innovation by speeding up R&D, and to enhance access by transforming current transportation systems and enabling safer access to remote and/or dangerous areas. Lastly, RASs were said to be able to improve automated monitoring and data collection to support and inform decision-making.

Key threats

Four threats were identified that could hamper SDG delivery. First, RASs 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 because of the energy needed for large-scale deployment, the resources used to build them, and the pollution created to use and dispose of them. Concerns were also raised about RASs diverting resources away from tried-and-tested approaches to achieving the SDGs and inadequate governance that could lead to ethical issues about data use.
Senior author Prof. Martin Dallimer of the University of Leeds states in the news item: “There are already promising ways to mitigate some of the identified threats robotics and autonomous systems could present. For example with issues regarding inequalities, there is a clear need to empower more women and those from diverse backgrounds to engage with robotics development. This, along with greater engagement by engineers with sustainable development professionals would ensure that robotics and autonomous systems are developed and deployed while respecting the needs of multiple different groups. Indeed, appropriate mitigation measures to counter the potential negative impacts of robotics and autonomous systems would, by their very nature, contribute to achieving 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.
Source: Cordis
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