IN 1984, all I wanted for Christmas was an Omnibot.
That’s not strictly true. I clearly wanted other, more practical things too, such as a red portable radio cassette player and a BMX bike.
It was very exciting to be able to record the charts off Radio One of a Sunday evening and my blue BMX Mongoose was the envy of all the boys on my street – but I never did get the robot.
Robots were all the rage in the early 80s. The British TV show ‘Metal Mickey’ was a big success. He was a 5ft tall, very clunky metal robot with a penchant for lemon bonbons who had been designed to help a family around the house.
He was a friendly character with a big heart and a huge hit with children like me.
Arriving hot on the heels of Metal Mickey, the Tomy Omnibot was a small, remote-controlled robot which promised to carry your Martini glass from kitchen to living room at the push of one or two buttons. At the time, this was revolutionary, no matter that most of us didn’t drink Martinis.
The adverts suggested that in a few years we would all have several robots gliding around our homes, fulfilling our every need. One advert at the time showed robots crowded onto a New York subway platform on their way to work and others were serving drinks around a hotel swimming pool.
At home though, why would you want a robot to carry your drink when you could carry it yourself? In addition to impressing your friends, this would free your hands to carry something else (assuming someone else was operating the remote) or buy you time to rustle up another cocktail. In summary, it would make you more productive.
Although the Omnibot never really took off, perhaps it should have done. I still miss Metal Mickey.
As for robots in our daily lives, innovators such as Yo Sushi in the UK have successfully experimented with serving Japanese food on a constantly moving conveyor belt with self-serve drinks at each seat and robotic voices, but still require staff to take more complex orders and prepare food. There’s definitely scope for taking this further.
Robots have been used for years in heavy industry, making cars and components, moving and manipulating toxic substances and defusing bombs, but have not yet been truly accepted in day-to-day life. Yet a family robot could not only be extremely useful around the house but it could also help combat loneliness.
Amazon’s Alexa, a virtual assistant that can turn on your desk lamp when it gets dark and play your favourite music on command, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Many, with justification, are concerned about sharing their personal data with a large corporation. Given most of what I mutter to myself on a day-to-day basis, I am less concerned, but I do take the point. In order for personal robots to be really useful, they have to know everything about us and our preferences, and that involves sharing a lot of information. It does mean we will have to think differently. Alexa is pretty good at keeping you company though. She’ll tell you a joke, happily take criticism and she’ll remind you to do things you might otherwise forget – I can see that being very useful in a few years’ time. She can call for help, make noises to deter intruders as well as make sure you turn off the iron.
From vacuum robots to smart washing machines, automation is here to stay and is making inroads into everyday life. But there was something really cute and appealing about those early home robots and perhaps there are a few technology companies missing a trick. Current home devices are bland and lacking fun – I bought the children’s version of one Alexa device simply because it looks like a tiger but they haven’t even optimised it to sound like one. These devices are also intimidating to many, too complex to set up and would benefit from a makeover to make them more accessible to those who could really benefit from them, such as the old and vulnerable.
My mum, in her 70s, is not alone in that she frequently needs younger family members’ input to set up devices and she finds it frustrating. With the right coaching, support and age-friendly gadgets, she would be keen to add more automation to her life but right now her options are limited. We’re all afraid of what we don’t understand, until we understand it.
Why does this all matter so much?
Productivity in the British economy has been steadily on the increase since the 1970s and has only recently started to level off. Guernsey is around two-thirds more productive than the UK already. I would argue that we have reached our limits as individuals to do more in our working day – most of us are worn out as it is, and the only way we are going to push productivity higher is with more automation and smarter working patterns.
The recent trials of a four-day working week on the island are to be welcomed but not if we continue to expect the same levels of work done within a shorter timeframe.
Many people left the workforce during the pandemic, here and in the UK, and it is not surprising. The more pressure we continue to put on our employees to deliver more and faster, the more likely they are to become unwell, to burn out and to decide they have had enough. Many are already under too much pressure and are struggling to cope.
Efficiency is desirable but should not be a tool that we then use to work people harder. We need to lower our expectations for productivity in a traditional sense and we need to re-learn how to be patient. We then have some hope of supply meeting demand and more workers staying in the workforce for longer. We need to normalise steady and sustainable growth in our economy, which will be a hard pill for many to swallow.
With rapidly changing demographics, an ageing population means we will all need to work longer. We won’t be able, nor will we have the appetite, to do that if we are pushed to our limits on a daily basis. I often wistfully imagine being born a generation or two earlier, not being under pressure to reply to an email instantaneously and having time to get work done in between calls and letters to clients. There is something bold and romantic these days about not taking your phone with you when you leave the house or not responding to work requests while on holiday.
Many of you might have different memories of those times but I am pretty sure it was not always this stressful, urgent or hectic and that we all managed just fine.
Guernsey’s productivity in some areas arguably still has some scope to continue to improve, without additional pressures on workers. Our postal service’s recent announcement on parcel sorting (Guernsey Post to introduce automatic parcel sorting, Guernsey Press, 9 November) and the progress being made with online tax returns, for example, will kickstart this change.
We should not be afraid of automation and certainly not of robots. We will need more of both longer term if we are to be able to look after our ageing population and continue to deliver key services. Humans will need to be focused on roles in which they are essential, while we automate whatever we can.
I recently met with a friend who believes robots have a much bigger role to play going forward in societies with naturally shrinking populations and, rather than fear this, we should embrace it.
Oh and Mum, I know you’re reading this. The Omnibot is still on my Christmas list.
Hayley North is a chartered financial planner and is involved in many areas of local life.