Technology Planning and Analysis

Workplace robots: East vs. West

Roffey Park is a charitable trust based in Singapore and the UK, recognised for developing innovative learning approaches. We catch-up with Gary Miles, Director of International Operations and Associate Relations to discover his view on the future of robots.


What are the most interesting uses of robots you’ve seen in the current workplace?

In the caring profession. In the East, China and Japan, robots are being seen as a potential blessing with family members regarding this kind of automation as serving to help caring for elderly and sick relatives and removing the monotony from many menial and dissatisfying tasks.

In the West, in contrast, the main use of robots is still in industry such as highly advanced manufacturing facilities or high volume assembly lines. Other interesting uses of robots are in aerospace industry for outer space exploration enabling scientists to explore in outer space without putting themselves in danger, and Healthcare Delivery in robotic surgery, even if the patient is located in remote areas.


How do you think they’ll be used in the future workplace?

We will see a continuation of the use of robots in manufacturing, aerospace, and defence industries in the short-term, but in the medium-term a greater proportion will be used in medical and caring professions and delivering helping/waiting functions, as can be seen in some restaurants in China.

Longer term we will move to a situation where robots are taking on human behaviour and emotions. Cynthia Breazeal from MIT, for example, has created Kismet, an autonomous robot designed for social interactions with humans.

Kismet apparently has a repertoire of responses driven by emotive and behavioural systems. Crucial to its drives are behaviours it uses to keep its emotional balance so when there are no visual cues to stimulate it, such as a face or a toy, it will become increasingly sad and lonely and look for people to play with. This is just one example of a robotics project that in the long-term will lead to improvements and innovations in the application of robotics to medicine, personal service as well as space and underwater exploration.


What do you think will surprise people most about the future use of robots?

I think we are all being educated, admittedly through popular TV programmes, such as the current drama series, Humans, that robots will become a day to day part of our lives. But what may well surprise us, given developments such as Kismet, is that these machines may become teammates of ours in the future. We will need to be as diverse and tolerant in our relationships with them as we are with our fellow human beings. Inclusion and partnership will take on a new meaning as robots also help to improve the quality of our lives.


Is there anything else you’d like to share?

The recent sad accident at Volkswagen in Germany where a man was killed by a robot at a plant producing transmissions and electric motors, emphasises the need for tight safeguards and stronger Health and Safety guidelines where humans and robots are interacting in the workplace. While this is an isolated incident it may frighten some people which should not be the case. We are seeing the dawn of Emotional Intelligence working alongside Artificial Intelligence, but this will require from managers and their staff higher degrees of adaptability and emotional agility than they have experienced to date.


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