Much has been made of the advancement of robots; many fear they will not only take away jobs but also far surpass the cognitive ability of the human brain and develop a mind of their own. Both Elon Musk and scientist Stephen Hawking have indicated that the prospect of super intelligence, whereby robots learn how to think like humans, poses crucial ethical questions for goals, control and regulation. Will we need rules similar to Asimov’s three laws of robotics which protect humans from the behaviour of robots in order for us to work together harmoniously?
The pessimists in this debate predict that everything from burger flippers to doctors could see their roles taken over by robots in the near future. There is also a perception that advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics is reducing the need for traditional labour. Some robots already cost less to operate than the salaries of the humans they replace, and they are getting cheaper and better. But these fears of automation are no different from those experienced as far back as the Industrial Revolution. For example, the introduction of the steam engine caused similar fears, but it opened up a whole new world of opportunities, inventions and – most importantly – a better quality of life.
In reality, robots in the workplace help to enhance the working experience for humans. For instance, robots in car plants are designed to work safely with humans and can eliminate workplace injuries. Robots are taking on jobs that are dangerous to humans (for example, in paint shops where noxious gases and high temperatures can cause dangers to humans).
While a lot of the conversation around what work will look like in the future does discuss AI, robotics and automation, we suggest that embracing collaborative robots, or “cobots”, can benefit us as a workforce in a number of ways:
Cobots can do the heavy lifting
Cobots are designed to work with people, for instance, to help them lift heavy objects in manufacturing or pass them parts which are difficult to handle. A robotic arm—with limited mobility and power—can be put to work between two human co-workers, supplying that pair with the components they require, as they need them. One such example is a factory in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, where they have robots and humans working side by side. The benefits of working collaboratively are clear: less heavy lifting for humans means there are less instances of back complaints and time off work. On the other hand, human workers bring flexibility and quick thinking, and have the ability to think on their feet and ‘re-program’ their minds in seconds.
Speed, Safety and efficiency
While robots are noted for their speed and efficiency, a human touch is still required to get the best out of them. Robo-bricklayers may be coming, with the newly launched Sam (Semi-Automated Mason) capable of laying up to 3,000 bricks a day, but it also needs to be closely supervised. Human workers will still need to assist with health and safety, as well as with clearing up, but can avoid some of the more manual tasks. Robo-brick layers can also help stem skills gaps; for instance, there is a projected 620,000 human brick layers due to retire in the next decade.
With many routine operations set to be automated in the future, we know that employers will need to think about how they organize their workforces to enable humans and robots to work together as colleagues. The most forward thinking companies are already looking for new ways to use advanced automation to decrease costs, increase productivity and allow staff to spend more time on creative thinking and keeping customers happy. Indeed, robots do have limitations in their capabilities; they may be fast and accurate but they can also be rigid. Humans are unique in their ability for creativity, lateral thinking, social interaction and understanding context. When we understand this, we can appreciate how robots and humans can work together efficiently, splitting the type of work best suited to each mindset. The robots may be coming, but by working collaboratively with them, and splitting the workload effectively, in ways that make sense like these Belgian hospitals, there is little need to fear them.
I will be exploring topics on the Future of Work in more detail over the next few months so look out for our series of blog posts and an extensive Future of Work report examining how the ways in which we work will change forever.