Friend or Foe? Robots in the Workplace

All of us are fascinated by the idea of robots in our homes, in public spaces, and in the workplace. But we see them as both a cause for excitement and for fear; they are marvelled and yet we are threatened by them. They have become such an ingrained part of our imagined future that we find it difficult to see them in our present.

The debate

Dr Carl Frey, an Oxford University researcher, published a book which stated that up to 47% of existing US jobs [1] were at “high risk” in the future, thanks to work automation.

However, this argument has been greeted with outrage. Robert Atkinson, president of the US-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think tank, argued in an article for MIT Technology Review, [2] that robots we were wrong to fear work automation and that in the past, the “income-generating effects of new technologies have proved more powerful than the labour-displacing effects”.

Work automation

Nonetheless, many of today’s jobs must ultimately be automated. Any job that involves even a small amount of repetitiveness could theoretically be done by a robot. The study, from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, suggests that the jobs at risk of automation [3] range from telemarketers to sports umpires to cooks.

But as many jobs are automated, others are created in their place. Further, job automation is not a new phenomenon: robots are already used in many industries; machines have replaced human workers in the past and society has survived, even benefited.

Robots add value

Robots in the workplace are intended to complement and add value the activities of human workers, rather than to replace them. Robots can aid their human counterparts by performing routine tasks, allowing humans to perform the more skilled or decision-based tasks and allowing the robot to perform the more repetitive tasks.

For example, TUG the hospital robot: [4] TUG is intended for use in a San Francisco hospital to deliver drugs, transport meals and remove used bed linen. These tasks are normally performed by a human worker – they are mundane but vital. Assigning these tasks to TUG allows human workers to perform more of the tasks that require skill.

Therefore, robots can be said to boost productivity, efficiency and quality. We must also remember the importance of human interaction – very few would draw comfort from a robot nurse, oncologist or priest. There are many jobs and roles that a robot could not replace and nor would we want them to.

But robots can enhance our performance and they have the ability to help humanity. [5] For instance, we have an ageing population and demand for elderly care will only increase. Robots can assist us to care for the elderly. They can dispense medicine to a patient, or helping to lift and carry – as is exemplified the Aldebaran’s Romeo [6] project.

In surgical procedures and operations, robots can assist surgeons – resulting in better outcomes for patients. Further, wearable robots can give help to people who need to perform heavy lifting tasks – airport luggage loaders, for example. HAL, [7] the robotic suit, is one such example of a robotic exoskeleton able to support the wearer in whatever motion they intend.

Consider also the role of robots in medical delivery for resource-deprived regions. Organisations like Tej Kohli Ventures [8] are looking into the long-term benefits of using technology to help deliver medical aid and make diagnosis in areas without access to adequate human medical attention.

Robots are already in use in industry. [9] China, for example, last year became the world’s largest buyer of industrial robots. In Japan, Nissan relies on industrial robots to produce its cars and this trend can be seen beginning now in India. The BBC already uses a robotic camera system in their studios, which provides a smooth camera pan. And in the non-manufacturing world, Uber uses software that automatically matches empty cars with passengers removing the need for human dispatch operators.

Adapting for the future

Jobs have been automated in the past but this has not necessarily been a bad thing. In many old industrial communities, robots or machines replaced human workers but in doing so, created a host of other professions.

In addition, there are many professionals that theoretically should have been replaced but were not. ATM machines should have replaced bank teller, but they have not.

There have and will always be people and factories that resist technological advancement. These will be the ones that become defunct. [10] By being open to change and advancement and considering the possibility of new ways of working and adapting, we can thrive. By resisting the inevitable we only make things more difficult for ourselves.

Tej Kohli, an ardent philanthropist and high-tech entrepreneur, is known for his wide knowledge in investing and helping companies get a start in the tech industry. Founder of Tej Kohli Foundation.

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