The European Commission Legal Affairs Committee is calling for a new regulatory framework to ensure the safe and ethical application of robots across the EU. This is an inevitable and timely reaction as we see more applications of robots and autonomous systems becoming part of people’s everyday lives, both within society and the workplace.
MEPs are proposing that the EU needs to take a leading role and create a dedicated agency for the provision of formal technical, legal, ethical and safety guidance. The latest report also considers a range of measures, such as the creation of a voluntary code of conduct which will advise that robots are equipped with 'kill switches' (emergency controls to turn off a robot in a crisis); issuing autonomous robots with a new legal status of 'electronic persons' (for situations where they need to be allocated responsibility for damage); and developing a minimum income to compensate for robots taking people’s jobs.
So far, this story has been reported with a focus on the usual ‘technofear’ aspects which highlight traditional public fears about the potential physical dangers posed by autonomous systems and on the prospect of robots ‘taking over’. However, it is worth considering the MEPs’ proposals with a more balanced view in relation to workers.
Robots are installed in workplaces because they bring a number of social and economic benefits, particularly when employed to assist people or replace unhealthy manual activities. Quite simply, robots can enable more people to do more things, thereby improving worker wellbeing and efficiency.
The physical strength offered by robots has always been exploited in manufacturing. But while industrial robots have been used to replace unhealthy, heavy production tasks, they have also been physically segregated from human operators due to the hazards posed by their high speeds and large payloads. However, the increasing sophistication of robotic and sensor technologies, means that lighter force- and torque-limited robots are now being produced, which enables closer proximity and collaboration with people.
More advanced adaptive automation capabilities are also leading to the creation of systems that can self-adjust to human requirements, meaning that organisations will be able to employ more diverse workforces (across age, ability, etc.) and cope with the growing mobility of available personnel. Robotic technology is being developed with the aim of reducing physical risks rather than increasing them, and to assist operators rather than add to their strains.
The fear of automation being developed to replace workers’ jobs is a longstanding workforce concern, but again, such fears are often unfounded. Human skills will remain essential for most types of existing manual work and simply cannot be substituted. People are still a valuable resource that is typically not replaced, but may be redeployed to other more challenging and supervisory job roles.
This is why current industrial robotics tend to be more preoccupied with developing assistive robot systems that can help and work collaboratively with operators instead of creating new systems that will wholly replace them. It is important to remember that robots are being designed to work collaboratively with different workforces, across different industries: not to simply replace people.
The current MEP initiative to formalise the safe and ethical design and application of robots is a welcome step. Although various standards and codes of practice are being updated to cover the advances being made in automation, technology always has to lead the way. The critical issue is not to allow this lead to become too great; we must ensure that implementation does not race too far ahead until we fully understand and prepare for its impacts on people.
Moreover, with the landscape changing so quickly, there may be a need to consider brand new laws and standards. For example, a new British standard 'Guide to the ethical design and application of robots and robotic systems' (BS8611) published in April 2016, addresses a much needed wider view of ethical issues that need to be considered to protect humans.
However, this document deals with robotics quite generically and there is room for much more to be discussed and developed into guidance, such as robotics in the workplace specifically. For example, as automation becomes more interconnected with other organisational systems it will inevitably record performance and personal data, which will bring other ethical issues to address, particularly for HR professionals.
Although our future with robots is not as frightening or sinister as the national media often like to report, it is the case that, in general, there has been surprisingly little effort understanding and preparing for the potential impacts. In this respect, the current MEPs’ proposal represents a positive initiative and will continue to provide plenty more momentum for us to debate these issues.
Sarah Fletcher is lead of the Manufacturing Group, Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF) and head of the Industrial Psychology and Human Factors Group at Cranfield University