Business Process Automation

"Robot Rights": The future of robots at work

This is a London street in 2040. A throng of workers are demonstrating in solidarity with their robot brothers and sisters. The banners read:

“Robot Rights!”

“Equal Pay For Robots!”

“I Love My Robot – Jayne – She Deserves MORE!”

The role of robots in the workplace is developing at a furious pace. This looks set to continue. And while the portrait above may be pure fantasy, it is not inconceivable.

So, how are robots likely to develop in the workplace?

Ocado Technology is currently working on a new project to build physical robots to offer a second pair of hands to employees. This will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced vision techniques to find out where human workers need help with technical maintenance jobs. It should be complete in five years.

As Jonathan Wilkins, director at European Automation puts it, in future combined with M2M, robots will have an “increased ability to learn and make predictions based on previous scenarios”. This can be seen in virtual assistant Amelia by IPsoft or the experiment where a neural network of 16,000 processors taught itself to recognise cats after a week of watching YouTube videos.

At present work robots are still in their early stages though. And as usual cultural differences come into play. In the West they are mostly being used in manufacturing and, occasionally, a high profile receptionist. In the East they emerge in more ‘caring roles’.

The Japanese, particularly, have always had a distinct relationship with machines. And this June, Pepper a humanoid robot, which can feel emotion and helps people by talking to them, made the headlines as its entire run of 1,000 sold out within one minute of going on sale.

It is this more human side of robots that will always draw the most fascination. This is the stuff of science fiction. And the film Her has already explored the relationship between a man and his virtual assistant. While Dr Helen Driscoll from Sunderland University Psychology Department believes that:

“Robophilia may be alien now, but could be normal in the near future as attitudes evolve with technology”.

This is a long way off. But things do seem to be moving in that general direction. “Robots are likely to offer different kinds of human machine interactions by encompassing social skills. It means machines will talk to people - in limited ways - but they will be able to trigger some kind of actions in our normal day lives,” says Dr. Antonio Espingardeiro, Senior Member of the IEEE.

“I can see developments such as robotic receptionists, hospitality staff or tour guides happening in the short to medium term, during this period where working with a robot colleague would have novelty value as well as usefulness,” adds Stephanie Lay, a researcher with the Open University who has spent over a decade investigating the “uncanny valley”, the creepiness of things which are almost but not exactly human.

She continues: “I think their development will fork soon between the embodied robots like [beautiful humanoid robot]  Aiko, designed as technical accomplishments or almost as works of living art, and ever-more intelligent virtual agents without a physical presence.”

This is an interesting point because, of course, the physical presence of robots may be the most interesting part, but it is not the element which will have the biggest impact on the workplace. Julien Perez, researcher in machine learning and AI at Xerox Research Centre believes “how robots will operate” will probably be the most surprising thing to people in future.

“The ability to personalise, perform adaptive problem solving and interactive learning are certainly some of the most important aspects that will be exhibited in the future use of robots,” he adds.

The recent Volkswagen incident where a human worker was crushed to death by a robot has also thrown up some debate about how these machines will impact the management of the future workplace.

“We are seeing the dawn of Emotional Intelligence working alongside Artificial Intelligence,” says Gary Miles, director of international operations and associate relations at Roffey Park “but this will require from managers and their staff higher degrees of adaptability and emotional agility than they have experienced to date.”

Of course, for many the only real question will remain: will robots take our jobs?

French Caldwell, Chief Evangelist of GRC at MetricStream says “the pace of robots and smart machines has picked up, but it is still not so rapid that it will leave humans behind”. Like many he feels that people in the middle – not those at the top or bottom – may be automated out of a job “but robots will also help us to find new jobs”. 

In fact, Caldwell envisages three possibilities for the robot-human hybrid workplace:

Either humans service and maintain robots like we do at the moment, or secondly humans work for the robots, or thirdly, and this really does seem more likely, human will own machines.

“If you are worried about the smart machines taking over,” he says “go buy some and start leasing them out – there’s business model there somewhere, and the clever humans will figure it out”.

It does seem unlikely that humans will ever be enslaved by machines. This means that as robots become more emotionally intelligent and responsive there will definitely be someone out there who starts to stand up for their rights.

Perhaps tomorrow’s banners will simply read: “Robot Are Just As Human As Us!”


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