Across pre-industrial societies, how long the average person could expect to stay alive varied little. In the late twentieth-century developed world, however, life expectancy began to improve dramatically. This was essentially due to advances in public health and medical breakthroughs in the fight against disease. The march of science finally began significantly to lengthen people’s lives.
The March is ongoing – and today robotics and automation play key roles in the life expectancy story. Human longevity continues to escalate, and as it escalates it is increasingly studied – both scientifically and sociologically. Having an informed idea about how long we are likely to live has a bearing on a range of issues of public interest, from debates about retirement to predictions of pressure on health services.
Medical innovation, in fields such as tissue regeneration and gene therapy, continues to be of paramount relevance to prospects for human life expectancy. As science diversifies and technology proliferates, however, other factors in the possible prolongation of life emerge.
One such set of factors is represented by robotics and automation. There are a number of ways in which advances in these industries are starting to have a significant impact on how long we live. Perhaps the most obvious of these lie in the area of hazard survival. More and more machines are keeping people out of danger, or, where necessary, getting them out of it.
Various types of robot have been developed for use in the vanguard of disaster-management scenarios. They range in nature from the Italian Institute of Technology’s humanoid WALK-MAN, able literally to walk into a room and turn off a gas leak, to the swarms of intelligent, miniature vehicles designed to combat forest fires.
These kind of ‘hero’ bots are additionally taking over routine jobs that must necessarily be carried out in the least hospitable situations: the cleaning up of nuclear waste, the disassembly of ammunition, the inspection of deepwater oil pipelines.
Thanks to robots people no longer have to suffer the side-effects of working in literally toxic environments. Autonomous machines have been used for a number of years to remove the asbestos insulation in old buildings. Welding, to take another example, is a job traditionally associated not only with the inhalation of harmful fumes and gases, but with the high risk of electric shocks and burns. Again, it is an industry in which automation is widespread.
Mining enterprises benefit enormously from automation both in the UK and other western nations. It is worthy of note that even the present scaled down mining industry would employ far more people were it not for automation; and the general move away from physical labour since the 1970s is believed to have contributed to the rise in (male) life expectancy. The robotic applications mentioned above – a very small sample – demonstrate ways in which that trend is continuing.
Away from the workplace, it is the efficiency levels associated with automated systems that perhaps have the greatest potential to benefit people’s well-being. In the food industry, for example, safety management systems cut down on the errors of paper-based operations, provide more granular, analysable pictures of production processes, and enhance compliance with safety standards.
Hospitals have even more to gain. Just the simple automation of notes and records – what once were unwieldy sheaves of paper manually ‘organised’ into brown envelopes along numberless shelves – has been shown to translate directly into patient wellness: according to one study in Texas, hospitals that had converted their patients’ records into genuine information systems showed a decreased death rate of 15%.
Clinical decision support systems are designed to promote the efficiency principle even further. These intelligent databases do not substitute for the physician at the point of consultation, but rather enhance his or her awareness of how best to advise the patient. They have the potential to eliminate the problem of clinical oversight altogether.
This gradual blending of automation into the management and practice of healthcare is analogous to the now-widespread use of machines in robot-assisted surgery. In health systems that are understaffed and overstretched, the difference made by these non-human forms of support has the potential to be measured in terms of lives saved.
It is clear that people across a gamut of specific situations stand to benefit directly from robotic applications and other aspects of automation. The social changes that such technology will bring about may be less straightforwardly rewarding.
As so often in this line of speculation, the future relationship between automated and human work is of critical importance. Scientific studies have shown that people who remain engaged in useful, stimulating jobs, live longer than those with little or nothing to do. Work lost to automation, even the work that endangered or harmed us, still perhaps had the salutary value of work per se.
Industry experts emphasise, of course, that automation has the effect not so much of relieving people of work itself as redefining the jobs that need doing within and alongside the new technologies. For this model to play out successfully, however, education and training programmes must furnish more or less everybody with unprecedented levels of know-how.
A certain level of education is, in any case, now regarded as one of the strongest predictors of a long life. Once considered by researchers to be secondary in importance to material affluence, it is now viewed as the stand-out factor. It above anything is what equips people to make informed lifestyle choices and exercise an effective degree of control over their lives.
There is a sense in which the automation age is making the education challenge non-negotiable. And in that respect the long-term benefits it promises to people’s well-being may turn out to be more far-reaching than at first appear.