Robots: not actually all that

Maybe our tin-headed overlords will just become another set of tools on the job.

Co-operation. Photograph: Getty Images

The hopes and fears prompted by workplace automation has been a favourite topic of ours. Will we end up living in a utopia where no-one has to work? Will all the gains go to the rich? What are the implications for the policy arguments of today?

But at their heart, all these questions rely on one key assumption: that the automation of the early to mid 21st century will be different from that of any period preceding it (except maybe the peak of the industrial revolution). Crucially, the change has to be quicker and wider than previous waves. Quicker, because otherwise people displaced from old jobs will just be absorbed into new ones smoothly and painlessly; and wider, because the hopes and fears rest on automation spreading far beyond simple mechanical tasks, into areas we consider innately human. Journalists, lawyers, doctors and researchers have all seen their jobs replaced by machines doing the same thing.

A wonderful feature in this week's Economist, however, suggests that the "don't panic" crowd have more going for them than they are given credit for. It turns out, just as with every other transformative technology, that robots are far more useful working with people than working instead of them:

Last December, in a company first, German carmaker BMW introduced a slow-moving collaborative robot in its factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which co-operates with a human worker to insulate and water-seal vehicle doors. The robot spreads out and glues down material that is held in place by the human worker’s more agile fingers. When this is done without the help of a robot, workers must be rotated off this uncomfortable task after just an hour or two to prevent elbow strain. Today four collaborative robots work in the facility, and more are coming, in Spartanburg and elsewhere…

No matter how flexible, easy to program and safe they are, collaborative workers may not be welcomed by human workers to begin with. The experience of Alumotion, an Italian distributor of UR’s robots, is illustrative. Workers fear being replaced by robots, says co-owner Fabio Facchinetti, so his salespeople carry demonstration units in unmarked cases and initially only meet a potential client’s senior management behind closed doors. But rather than firing workers, Alumotion’s clients often end up adding shifts because production costs drop.

Collaborative robots do have some obvious problems to overcome, and some of the lines in the feature are moderately chilling; the fact that the International Organisation for Standardisation is in the process of publishing "pain-threshold standards" reminds us that when robots go wrong, they can go very wrong. Similarly, when the Economist quotes advice that "humanoid robots should generally be no larger than a six-year-old, a size most adults reckon they could overpower if necessary", the "reckon" is telling. If that robot decides to take you on, size can be misleading.

Maybe robots won't transform the world, put us all out of work, or build out utopias. Maybe they'll just be another set of tools which make us ever more effective at doing our jobs, slowly increasing living standards further and further for the same amount of labour. That would be nice.