Cobots in the Workplace - Can't we all Just Get Along?

Science fiction is fast becoming a reality in manufacturing and service industries across the world as machine learning, artificial intelligence, robots and cobots (collaborative robots) become a reality. Businesses should pay attention to this trend and how it will impact human employment.

Future proofing is a key strategic challenge for senior management. Currently, attention is heavily focused on just how disruptive cobots (robots collaborating with humans) will be on a global scale. 

Recent tales of Facebook having to shut down two chatbots (‘Bob’ and ‘Alice’), that began to speak to each other in an indecipherable AI language they made up, caused a flurry of concern. Robots would soon be taking over the world. The truth, of course, is that this is a lot less threatening than the sci-fi headlines would have you believe.

Robots are already in the workforce

By 2018, the number of robots sold will double to 400,000 units according to a 2016 study by the International Federation of Robotics. The industrialised countries of China, Japan, South Korea, Germany and the USA are responsible for 70% of this demand.

Closer to home, World Bank research says Africa has two industrial robots per 100,000 manufacturing workers. This figure massively lags the developed world, but businesses located in Africa ignore the trend at their peril.

Jobs, needless to say, are a major focus point, not least due to the link between employment and stable societies.

A widely quoted 2016 study by Daron Acemoglu (MIT) and Pascual Restrepo (Boston University) suggested bots would merely trigger the creation of new, more creative jobs. The reality is a little more complex.

This year, economists finished the first quantitative survey of job losses using real-world data. This sobering study shows bots cost 670,000 North American  manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2007. In one local economy which the academics scrutinised, each bot eliminated 6.2 jobs per 1000 workers.

Acemoglu and Restrepo say US bot sales are expected to quadruple, and it follows that job losses could mount.

Though these statistics look alarming, many companies that invest in robotics say that they are hiring more people as increased productivity drives company growth. Employees will move to tasks with higher value creation.

Humans think better than robots

Any review of the literature confirms that humans always outscore machines when it comes to thinking, planning and decision-making. We can think ahead. The machines can’t.

One commentator has noted: “We can map out a series of steps that can lead us to a certain goal. This is what robots cannot do. They lack the ability to plan ahead of time.”

Machines are faster, more precise, more consistent and more productive. Pressure on repetitive manufacturing jobs is already evident. Service sectors have also shown themselves not to be immune to the march of the robots.

One robotics application now flips burgers to consistent quality levels. It’s easy to see how an application such as this can have an effect on blue collar jobs.

How can the incumbents in these jobs ensure their employability in the face of this trend?

Education is the key

The lesson is simple. A good education and skills are essential for humans.

In a paper to the International Management Conference in Bucharest, D.M. Florian noted: “Studies suggest robots are increasing our wages, not stealing our jobs, though there has been a decrease in the number of positions at some companies. However, the need for more qualified positions has gone up…

“Technology has been proved to make humans smarter … a machine has no ability to assess situations and cannot look at a set of transactions and provide an overall picture of what they could mean.”

Florian concluded: “Robots will only be able to support the problem-solving structure. They cannot replace it.”

The Day of the Cobot

Many experts say man-versus-machine simplification is off the mark. Man with machine is more probable.

Growing sales of collaborative robots (or ‘cobots’) are reported worldwide.

Here, one area of development is wearable robotics or exoskeletons that augment human capabilities with technology. ABI Research says about 40 R&D groups currently work in the field – the basis for a “$2 billion global market by 2025”.

Military and healthcare applications are focus areas, as are industrial uses. Many firms are in the market for “motorised muscles” for heavy lifting, or for sensor-actuated exoskeleton suits that “protect and serve” humans during dangerous work.

In all cases, a trained and skilled person is needed to operate the wearables, hinting at a future in which humans work with robots in many areas. Hence, the term “cobots”.

Unskilled employment may therefore fall. You need skills to get the best out of cobots or “smart overalls” representing a big capex investment.

The highly trained, well-educated cobot co-worker will become a major contributor to productivity and profit.

Executives will still find human management is a key part of their task, but a new managerial style may be needed in this high-skill, high-knowledge environment.

A very human, empathetic approach will be more appropriate than ‘command and control’. Ironically, the cobots could bring out our human side.