Are robots a workplace friend or foe? Given their ability to work non-stop and their inability to ask for a raise or quit, we can see why many people have concerns about job safety when it comes to robot workers. But evidence shows that incorporating robots into a workplace is actually good for the workforce. Stats Canada reports that companies using robots see about a 20% rise in employee numbers between one and five years after robots are introduced. Before we get too far into this blog, let’s define “robot”. A robot is an intelligent, physically embodied machine that can perform tasks with some autonomy and can also sense and manipulate its environment.
Robot Worker History
Robots have been part of the workforce since 1956. The first work robot, Unimate, was created by a collaboration between Joseph F. Engelberger and George C. Devol. This robot extracted die castings from machines and performed spot welds on vehicles for General Motors. Thus started a long relationship between robots and the automotive industry. As for the origin of the word “robot”, it first appeared in a 1921 play from Karel Capek called R.U.R. or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Robot is a word that comes from the Czech for “forced labor”.
My Robot Friend
Is a robot going to take your job? For now, robots are dependent on people—actual humans are still needed to supervise their work. In 2017, a study was commissioned by M.I.T. to look at how advancing technology has changed and will change the work force. The findings were published last year with the conclusion that robots would change the workplace, yes, but that they would not take jobs away from workers. This study also points out that due to cost and operational expenses, only larger companies can afford to implement robot work. Medium and small businesses still run on human power. However, it has been noted that robots tend to lead to job polarization, eliminating some middle-class jobs. The takeaway is that robots will continue to change the workforce, but as part of an evolution where the entire employment landscape will change, flex, and adapt.
Humans and robots do different work. Robot workers often perform tedious, dangerous, or repetitive tasks. Here are some examples of robots working among us.
- Amazon robots. Order-picking robots are working to pull the goods ordered online so they can be delivered to your door. Some advantages include the elimination of order paper, increased accuracy, and reduced walk time.
- Chatbots on call. Modern chatbots are performing customer service duties with pre-programmed commands. They can also be trained to use machine learning to adapt their responses to fit a particular situation.
- Automotive input. Just like original robot Unimate, robots continue to be used in the automotive industry. They are performing tasks such as screw driving, assembling, painting, trimming, cutting, pouring hazardous substances, labeling, and welding.
- Clean up duty. There’s a robot taking care of one job nobody likes to do—scrubbing the floor. Just think of it as an industrial version of your Roomba.
Now that we’ve seen some specific examples of robots at work, let’s talk in more general terms. Here are four robot worker types that you might see on the job.
Collaborative robot. This kind of robot is designed to work with humans. Also known as a “cobot”, collaborative robots have built-in safeguards protecting their human counterparts. A human may teach the robot a task, which the robot then repeats; or a robot may hand parts or materials to a human.
Industrial robot. This type of robot is automatically controlled, reprogrammable, and can be fixed or mobile. It’s used in manufacturing, inspection, packaging, and assembly.
Professional service robot. You’ll find this robot in commercial settings doing things such as cleaning, delivery, firefighting, or surgery.
Mobile robot. This is a robot that can travel under its own control.
Telepresence robot. This is a bonus robot on the list that I think we’ve all seen. It’s a robot body with a monitor for a head. And on that monitor is a person. The idea is that remote workers will still feel like they’re part of the in-person workforce.
One of the great robotic advancements in the workplace is happening in healthcare. Robots are being used more and more often to assist with surgeries. These robotic surgeries allow doctors to perform complex procedures with more precision, flexibility, and control than they have with conventional methods. The most prevalent robotic surgical systems have a camera arm and mechanical arms with surgical instruments attached. Before you get too worried about a robot making the wrong move, know that they’re controlled by a surgeon using a computer console. This setup gives the surgeon a high-definition, magnified, 3-D view of surgery. Robotic surgery is often minimally invasive because it’s done through tiny incisions. Other advantages include fewer complications, less pain and blood loss, and faster recovery.
Movies such as the Terminator series, Robocop, and Blade Runner bring the worst-case scenario to mind when it comes to robot workers. But thankfully, that’s just a science-fiction interpretation. The truth is that robots are doing all kinds of jobs that most of us either don’t want to do or can’t do. And the more we learn how to integrate robots into the workforce, the more time we can spend growing a business or taking care of other job-related details. The next time you’re worried about a robot taking your job, think of what author and business developer Richie Norton said: “Artificial intelligence (AI) will take over every job that could be done by a robot. Making work more human.”