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Freaky AND functional – the robots are here!

robotsIn some workplaces, robot workers have been commonplace for decades, but unless you count computers, robots haven’t managed to make much headway into offices. Software foundation Mozilla (makers of the Firefox web browser) is experimenting with a simple robot to allow remote workers to connect to their colleagues in a less virtual manner, but the cost of current robots, with much less functionality than an actual person, and likely the steep learning curve to get them to work, are probably the main reasons why we (or at least our executives) don’t have robo-assistants catering to their every whim yet.

(Of course, there’s also the ever-present threat of a robot achieving intelligence and turning on its human masters—*shudder*—regardless of the laws of robotics. I don’t even want to think of the legal repercussions of that.)

I don’t honestly believe that the labour forces of the world are at risk from a wave of robots taking their jobs—just yet—but robots will continue to move into job areas that were previously occupied exclusively by humans, and the issues that arise are serious, even if they seem somewhat far-fetched. For example, when a robot is capable of multiple types of manual labour, is able to work twice as long as a human and will never complain about working conditions, many human workers have got something to worry about, even if that robot comes with a price tag of $US 320,000. With no worries about harassment complaints, no fear of strikes, no backtalk and no vacation to worry about, many employers will look at independent robots as model employees. (Although, I’m sure the maintenance costs and downtime are no small matter. And what about the robots’ rights activists!?)

The scientist in the linked video mentions that robots could take care of labour shortages, but I wonder if this is really an appropriate way to look at that problem. Many thousands of Canadians are out of work, and many more can’t work due to social and systemic barriers; is it really good news that robots might reduce even further the chance of getting a decent job?

Here’s the really frightening part: South Korea has been testing robot teachers for early childhood education, and plans to introduce the robo-teachers in 500 preschools by next year and 8,000 schools by 2012! I guess I should be happy I didn’t go to teacher’s college then. Not surprisingly, the Korea Institute of Science & Technology wants to sell the program beyond South Korea’s borders.

Now, putting aside questions of cost and efficiency, can a robot offer the same quality of teaching that a person can? And do we want kids to spend more time in front of soulless electronics than they already are?

Well, at least I feel reasonably confident in my job as a writer and editor. Even though this guy has figured out a way to automatically write books (he’s written between 85,000 and 300,000—but who’s counting?)—including the page-turner, The 2007 Import and Export Market for Beverages and Tobacco in Israel—his overall Amazon rating is two out of five stars. One scathing review called The Official Parent’s Sourcebook on Childhood Rhabdomyosarcoma: A Revised and Updated Directory for the Internet Age a “Poorly Edited Mess With Almost No Information On Its Subject”, and suggests that the book was not only devoid of new information, but contained much information on an entirely different and unrelated medical condition. Phew!

I don’t want anyone to think I’m prejudiced against robots. Once we’ve sorted out a few of our bigger social problems, I’m all for robots taking over manual labour and other work that no one wants to perform. But until then, well, I’d rather send my future kids to school and work with humans, not humanoids.

On the other hand, maybe Yosie will get her robo-assistant sooner rather than later. So that’s good news!

What do you think? Are we at risk from the robot invasion? Will there be a workers’ revolt against these imported imposters? Is your job at risk from robo-replacement? Or will robots integrate into workplaces with ease and style? Besides labour shortages, what types of labour issue might robots help solve?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources, Compliance and Robots Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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2 thoughts on “Freaky AND functional – the robots are here!
  • Adam,

    This reminds me of the movie, “Bicentennial Man”, where a family got a robot to do work around the house etc., and “Artificial Intelligence”, where a family with an ill child got a child-robot to fill the void.

    I can see human-looking robots walking alongside humans in the future, and I can see this being an advantage. But, as with these movies, I can see how having robots can get out of hand. Though it may be handy to have a personal robot performing undesirable tasks, there is great potential for there to be problems down the road.

    Christina Catenacci

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Here’s another important bit of robo-news: Robots are replacing middle class jobs