New article on whether robotics can help us achieve sustainable development

June 26, 2022


An international team of scientists, led by the University of Leeds and ILPÖ, have assessed how robotics and autonomous systems might facilitate or impede the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Technological advancements have already profoundly altered how economies operate and how people, society and environments inter-relate. Robotics and autonomous systems are reshaping the world, changing healthcare, food production and biodiversity management. However, the associated potential positive and negative effects caused by their involvement in the SDGs had not been considered systematically. Now, international researchers conducted a horizon scan to evaluate the impact this cutting-edge technology could have on SDGs delivery. It involved more than 100 experts from around the world, including 44 experts from low- and middle-income countries.

Findings identify key opportunities and key threats that need to be considered while developing, deploying and governing robotics and autonomous systems’. The key opportunities robotics and autonomous systems present are through autonomous task completion, supporting human activities, fostering innovation, enhancing remote access and improving monitoring. Emerging threats relate to reinforcing inequalities, exacerbating environmental change, diverting resources from tried-and-tested solutions, and reducing freedom and privacy through inadequate governance.

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. However, realising those benefits while minimising unintended consequences is a complex challenge. Early identification of possible negative impacts along with early collaboration and continued dialogue across stakeholders will help us seize opportunities while avoiding pitfalls. Additionally, though mobilising digital technology could significantly help facilitate the achievement of the SDGs, the opportunities and threats posed by robotics and autonomous systems are so far not integrated into any other global initiatives, strategies or social goal setting. The study authors suggest this is likely in part due to the relatively slow pace of regulation and goal setting when compared to robotics development, leaving the door open to poor regulation or non-binding guidelines. Although the full impact of robotics and autonomous systems across the Sustainable Development Goals are hard to predict, inclusion of robotics in future iterations of the goals will be essential to avoid detrimental and unintended consequences while realising the opportunities they offer.

Guenat, S., Purnell, P., Davies, Z.G. et al. Meeting sustainable development goals via robotics and autonomous systems. Nat Commun 13, 3559 (2022).

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