Judith Viladomat manages Corporate Communications at PAL Robotics.  PAL Robotics is a leading company in bipedal humanoid robots, established in Barcelona. Their mission is to develop service robots that improve the quality of life of people. A team of passionate engineers who design, assemble and customise humanoid robots to help take business to the next level. Founded in 2004 by four engineers, they have successfully developed various service and research robots, contributed to open source projects and participated in several robotics competitions.

What are the most exciting advancements when it comes to robotics? 

We are starting to see how the robots are being tested in real scenarios. Up until now, everything was in research. You had to imagine robots in laboratories, where the environment is controlled, but, of course, this is not the way we imagine robots. We imagine robots in our lives.

Robots need to adapt to changes, to a real life dynamic environment. This is one of the challenges that is now being solved.

It is very important to have robots in industry. We have one robot, Talos, a super tall humanoid, 1.75 meters, so this robot is probably going to be implemented in aircraft manufacturing with Airbus, one of the project partners. This is really important because right now, there are some tasks that people have to do when building an airplane, that are damaging to their health, because, for example, they require non ergonomic positions while holding heavy tools. In this environment, the robot has to take into account that certain things are changing, that there are people around and it should not harm them. This is far from traditional robots working in controlled spaces and is one of the big steps towards having robots helping us. 

In what key ways will automation enhance the workplace?

To protect workers from damaging things that may affect their health or their life. Imagine toxic particles or high temperatures, positions that are not comfortable for a human, or situations that are too demanding for the human body. In these cases, a robot can be beneficial if used instead of a human.

Robots are useful for very repetitive tasks that don’t require the bio capabilities of a person, as well as all those that don’t add value, like for example, when you have a nurse that is doing logistical tasks instead of taking care of a patient. A robot can do the logistics while the nurse can focus on giving the attention that the patient needs.

What opportunities could the rise of automation provide in terms of alternative jobs?

There will be a lot of new jobs because the impact of new technologies is not a hundred percent controlled, you don’t know what will happen when you introduce robotics or when you create robotics technology.

I think there are amazing opportunities that we will open from the developments that robotics will lead to. But of course, there is a lot of engineering, programming, artificial intelligence, and development of algorithms that are so advanced that they can make better decisions than us.

This will be an important new field in the workplace, and I think that this will lead us to reinvent ourselves. When cars appeared and the horse industry disappeared, people could do other jobs, and in the end, the market started generating more work than what it destroyed. In all the industrial revolutions this happened, and we expect this to happen with robotics too.  

What new skills will humans need to adapt to this changing work environment?

People need to focus on the skills where we are strongest. This means creativity. Algorithms do not always make decisions in the right way, they need people’s supervision. When companies have to recruit, there have been examples of algorithms being biased because of the bias that society has. For this reason, people need to be supervising how algorithms and robots act in ways that may not be fair. There is an added value that people have to deliver. At Pal we are really focused on the creation of the robot. When we participate in projects we make sure we know that it will add value to people’s work and that their jobs are complemented by robots and not substituted. We need a complementary and harmonic relation.

If there is something that damages the person’s integrity or health, I think this is the moment when the robots should take the place of the person. For the rest, it is the synergy between robots and people skills that is the most desired.

It is said that the new roles required in the future of work will be more emotionally complex and creative. If we adapt to these changes, could the fourth industrial revolution in fact create a more ‘human’ society in the long run?

Yes, I totally believe this, it should be our goal. I hope everyone understands this. That’s why public regulation is so important.

But, at least at Pal, what we want is to see that new technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence deliver a positive impact and enhance people’s quality of life in a way that everyone can benefit.

In 2017, the European Parliament rejected a proposal that would tax robots and use the money to retrain workers, arguing that it would slow innovation. What are your thoughts on this? 

When you buy a robot, you are already paying taxes, which are the taxes correspondent with that purchase. There have been other innovations that we don’t even think about like the washing machine, where you pay taxes but nothing extra, and this also took out a lot of jobs. It is something that is a part of the equipment of a company. It doesn’t need to be taxed more because the tax is already there. 

How long will it take for both companies and private housing to have humanoid robots?

It depends.

It is evolving fast but not that fast in the end. We see one specific advancement and suddenly it’s all over the news, but until we really see a robot that is actually helping old people at home or someone in the industry, rather than a test that goes well, there’s a bridge that we have to close.

While this bridge is still open we have time to reshape everything, to foresee how robots could transform our work, our daily routines, for the good. There are some types of robots that are already in workplaces. They are not humanoids, but you don’t need humanoids to do certain tasks where regular robots are working fine already. Take our model, Stockbot, that takes inventory autonomously in retail stores, or the TIAGoBase an autonomous robot that brings things from one place to the other, delivering in hotels and industry. Implementing humanoid robots at home will take longer. If they have wheels, this kind of navigation is already mature enough, but if they are developed as bipeds, to move the same way we move, this will require further research. This is what we are working on, on making biped robots effective so they can move about in our environment and climb steps if they find one, they can wear tools… That’s why we think humanoids are the final step in terms of robotics.