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What happens when your colleague is a robot?

12 Jul 2018 By Robert Jeffery

The industrial robots of today are less R2-D2 and more replicant – and that means HR needs to be part of the discussion about their rapid introduction

It is a quintessentially modern conundrum of office etiquette: when the fire alarm sounds, is it OK to leave the workplace robot at their desk? For at least one British organisation People Management spoke to, the answer is no – the resident electronic employee is seen as every bit as sentient as its human equivalents (and, in some cases, perhaps more so) and is carried out on staff members’ shoulders. But the fact such a question is even being asked tells us something intriguing: industrial robots are no longer curiosities but are rapidly becoming colleagues. 

That’s down to the adoption of the ‘cobot’ – an advanced, adaptable machine that can be entrusted to work alongside humans without being kept in a cage or a separate room. Barclays Capital believes there could be around 150,000 sold globally each year by 2020; a drop in the ocean, perhaps, compared to the broader market for industrial robots (China alone is buying millions of units to populate factories that produce phones and other tech), but a significant rate of growth. 

And although the UK is far less futuristic in its take-up of cobots than Germany, Japan or even the protectionist US, they’re most definitely here (and they’re certainly not hard to spot). Cobots undertake quick-fire assembly on car production lines, pack boxes in factories, wield spray guns in paint shops and change the plates used by printers.

They’re also cost-effective by human standards. Depending on the complexity of the task, they start at around £10,000, and London-based start-up Automata says its roboticised arm, Eva, will cost less than £5,000 when it comes to market later this year. Leasing deals start at £60 per day.

Increased minimum wages and global competition have all been cited by employers as reasons to augment the human workforce, but in the UK the real lubricant for the rise of the cobots is Brexit. Universal Robots, one of the largest manufacturers of cobots, has said it is selling models to British firms in increasing numbers since the migration of EU workers began to tail off in the wake of the referendum result. 

“Businesses are definitely being affected by Brexit,” says Greg Williams of Active8 Robots, a consultancy that helps businesses integrate cobots. “People are starting to realise that they’re not going to be able to get the same sort of low-paid staff to do mundane jobs. It’s leading some quite large organisations to ask if we can help.”

While some want to reduce headcount or lift productivity, many manufacturers, says Williams, have simply been unable to find enough staff to operate at full capacity. He cites food service firms flummoxed by the seasonal rush who turn to cobots to offer scalability, as well as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics businesses that need to ramp up production quickly.

That variety of usage is fuelling innovation in cobot design. While some remain simplistic, arm-like devices or boxed units, others have humanoid forms and the ability to move and interact independently. Williams says a true cobot operates at a human-like speed; Rethink Robotics’ Baxter, the most famous cobot on the market, is deliberately designed to be the same size as an adult human, with similar levels of dexterity (but, of course, no hankering after work-life balance).

Baxter’s equally recognisable rival is Pepper, a 4ft humanoid unit on wheels with, its Japanese makers claim, the ability to react to people’s emotions. That means it has been deployed widely in customer service environments, including offering information and answering visitors’ questions in shops, hospitals and airports. 

But Pepper has also found its way into care homes, and not just in its native land: Southend-on-Sea Borough Council in Essex has become an unlikely user of the technology since introducing a Pepper into its workforce a year ago. The robot works in residential homes – typically playing vintage videos to stimulate the memories of residents with early onset dementia – and interacts with support groups for people on the autism spectrum, as well as visiting schools to encourage interest in programming among children.

For the council’s robotics, AI and technology lead, Phil Webster – who says Pepper is treated “like a rock star” around the office – the aim was to “make a difference” rather than to drive cost savings. He talks about the “natural affinity” the public feels with a cobot and the difference it makes to some who have difficulty interacting with more traditional therapies.

“We always stress that we’re not looking to see robots replace hands-on care,” says Webster. “But we do know there’s a massive crisis among care providers. People are flying in for 15-minute visits [with elderly residents]. What happens for the rest of the day?”

Pepper costs £15,000 to buy outright and comes with a three-year warranty, and the economies of scale this offers means other social care providers are interested in introducing it, says Webster. 

But if the idea makes pragmatic sense given the pressures on human talent, it does dramatically alter the dynamics of the workforce. “The idea of a cobot as a physical presence is relatively new,” says Ksenia Zheltoukhova, the CIPD’s head of research and thought leadership. “A lot of companies use AI to automate processes, but that is very much an invisible force. You don’t feel it in the same way as you do something with a physical presence.”

That manifests itself in discussions over everything from gender – “I see Pepper as an ‘it’ but there are strong views over whether it’s a boy or a girl,” says Webster, who politely rejected a trade union’s offer to enrol the cobot as a member – to the degree of interaction between human and humanoid employees. Broader attempts to add faces and personalities to cobots have had mixed results, but that’s not to say they haven’t been integrated into the workforce; employees have held retirement parties for their cobot colleagues and rushed to their aid when they topple over.

Williams is adamant that he has “never heard of anyone being fired for a cobot in any business we have worked with”, but the broader picture is far from clear. We simply do not know whether the wave of automation spearheaded by cobots is part of a natural rebalancing of the global economy akin to previous industrial revolutions, or a fundamental realignment of humans’ intrinsic value.

The supermarket industry may be a useful canary in this particular mine. Though it promised that the introduction of self-service checkouts would not lead to widespread job losses, in the years since they became ubiquitous among larger retailers, thousands of cuts have ensued in the sector. The cause is not limited to automation, but the point remains that the aftershocks of adopting new technology are not limited to the immediate aftermath. 

In fact, says Zheltoukhova, the most vulnerable individuals are those left working with cobots who have a visual reminder of their own impending obsolescence – not unlike the former checkout operators who assist customers using self-service tills. She urges businesses to conduct a realistic analysis of what will happen to jobs when robots are introduced, and communicate this to the workforce, as well as highlighting the training opportunities that can offer them a more prosperous future. 

“Technology may hollow out jobs and leave the parts that require human interaction,” says Zheltoukhova. “But technology isn’t an easy option – when you introduce it, you have to spend money training employees, as well as the cost of the hardware itself.”

What’s equally true, however, is that technological capability will increase exponentially. “Imagine the development of mobile phones and it will follow the same path,” says Williams. “There will be more functionality and more ways of interacting. You can follow the same logic as computing: halving in price and doubling in power every five years.”

In Japan, robots mix drinks in bars. A US T-shirt factory will soon use cobots to manufacturer a garment every 22 seconds. A Singapore university has been able to robotically assemble an Ikea chair. Agricultural robots can already pick many types of vegetable. And while some tasks remain beyond even the best robots (folding a towel still takes 20 minutes, according to researchers), Webster believes Pepper is “the Betamax video player” of the robotics world: “In 10 years, we will be blown away by what’s possible.”

He sees the potential for AI-enabled cobots to answer telephone queries or for automated systems to make planning judgements, and urges developers to view the public sector as a viable market for their products. 

For Zheltoukhova, the imperative is simpler: HR must be involved in the discussion about the deployment of cobots at the point decisions are being considered rather than when the human workforce becomes humanoid. After all, if HR professionals aren’t central to workplace humanity, they too might find a grinning cobot sitting in the chair next to them one morning.    

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