Twenty-five years ago, Bill Gates published The Road Ahead, his first book, which made a few predictions about the future. He wrote recently that he got some of them wrong. But not many.

In a recent blog post, Bill wrote, “If we get the technology right, the uses for robots will be almost limitless. They can make us safer, healthier, more productive, and even less lonely. That’s why I’m so excited about the companies across the country and around the world that are at the forefront of robotics technology, working to usher in a robotics revolution.”

Surely, when a man like Bill Gates says robotics is the future, we should pay attention.

The challenge is that robotics research and development is expensive. This is where the government and investment community must do more. Start-ups require lots of support and investment just to survive the early years and I fear the UK being left behind if we don’t back these businesses.

But it’s not just about supporting early-stage companies, we also need to help them scale up and tackle global markets. If we snooze, we’ll lose. If they can’t raise the investment they need then just when they could be looking to recruit talent from across the demographic spectrum, driving investment in the UK workforce and economy, these companies will move abroad to countries that have been quicker to embrace the technology and have, like Bill Gates, seen the future.

At the National Robotarium, we have companies like Bioliberty doing ground-breaking work in soft robotics to assist with stroke rehabilitation, and Touchlab, which has developed the most sensitive “living skin” for robots available anywhere in the world. Both are on the verge of scaling but neither company has been able to trial its solutions in the UK. Bioliberty will start trials of its robotic glove in the US later this year whilst Touchlab were forced to take their tech to Finland for hospital-based trials last year. If they enjoy a strong working relationship with foreign partners, then there’s every chance they’ll favour those markets over the UK.

We can’t risk losing the rich innovative stream emerging in robotics.

Did you know that the world’s first clinically used whole-body MRI Scanner was designed and built in the late 1970s by physicists and technical staff in the Medical Physics Department of the University of Aberdeen? The global MRI systems market was estimated to be worth $5.2 billion last year and is expected to reach $6.6 billion by 2028. So, you’d think Scottish companies would be amongst the world’s biggest developers and manufacturers of this crucial and lucrative technology. Well, you’d be wrong.

In its own 2019 research paper into the potential of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS), the then Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) found that the UK failed to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the previous wave of industrial robotics.

We just can’t afford to fall asleep at the wheel again.

Steve Maclaren is COO, the National Robotarium

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