The rise of the robot workforce

Robots are breaking out of the factory. But just how far will they go?

Golden maidservants hastened to help their master. They looked like real women and could not only speak and use their limbs but were endowed with intelligence and trained in handwork by the immortal gods.”

This is the first known reference ever made to robots in Western literature. It comes not from the 1950s works of Isaac Asimov, but from Homer’s (8th century BC) Iliad.

It’s clear the idea of the robot – a being able to replicate and perhaps eventually replace human endeavour – has long haunted human consciousness.

In manufacturing, physical robotics, or ‘embodied’ robots (as distinct from ‘robot’ to mean automation software or artificial intelligence), have been around for roughly 40 years. But experts say these assembly line robots are on the cusp of getting more sophisticated – and are breaking out of the factory into all sorts of settings.

So is ‘the rise of the robot’ finally nigh? And what does this mean for the average worker, and HR?

Where will robots start to appear?

“In manufacturing traditionally, robotic devices were in fixed locations, they’d be screwed down and the arm would move. Now the robot can have wheels or treads – and people are working on developing legs,” says Elizabeth Sklar, director of the MSc in data science at the Department of Informatics at King’s College London, regarding the importance of recently developed mobility-enabling tech.

This opens up a whole range of applications, including care, agriculture and even the humble office. The other important factor here is AI. “I think in terms of where things are moving, it’s towards robots that are more intelligent, adaptive and autonomous – so more able to make decisions completely on their own without human help,” explains Sklar.

“For example, a robot that goes round an office and delivers packages: an autonomous robot would say, ‘I’ve discovered the recipient is not where I expected them to be – because the package is marked urgent, I’m going to email and find out where they are and change my delivery route.’”

Sklar adds the examples of telepresence robots that sit in meetings and display the remote worker’s face onscreen, turning to look at the person in the room who is speaking. These robots are also already being used to save would-be conference-goers time and money by attending for them.

In terms of care-giving, applications include reminding patients when to take their medication, and helping them lift weights the right number of times when undergoing physio. “They’re not good enough for the heavy lifting yet but I would see that as the trend,” says Alan Winfield, professor at the Bristol Robotics Lab. “It’s easy to imagine if you had a robot that it could help with personal hygiene – that gives dignity back to someone.”

Martin Ford, futurist and author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, adds the examples of fast food, security and stacking shelves. “There’s a company in San Francisco that’s going into the testing phase, having designed a hamburger robot that will crank out about 400 hamburgers an hour,” he says.

He adds: “Where I live in Silicon Valley there are already robots that do surveillance, they roll around and do perimeter security. And there’s a robot in a store you can interact with and it will lead you to an item. It’s not about building general-purpose robots; it’s going to be about building specific robots that do specific things.”

What about manufacturing?

Mobility, AI and safety developments mean that robots have started coming out from behind their safety cages, explains Winfield: “Unlike the first generation, this new generation of robotics is designed for the human to work safely alongside the robot. Typically the human does the fiddly bits that the robot can’t do, and the robot does the repetitive parts.

“One of the features of the Baxter robot, for example, is you can physically grab its arm and show it what to do. So you can teach the robot in a very simple way. The coworker becomes the programmer.”

Sklar adds the example of how AI will increasingly enhance the speed and accuracy of car assembly: “If something is out of place on the assembly line, an intelligent robot will be able to sense that and shift [for example] the windscreen.”

To what extent will humans be replaced?

The above example might suggest the rise of ‘lights-out,’ factories, entirely staffed by machines (of which there are already numerous examples). Ford, for one, feels that physical robots, never mind disembodied AI and automation-enhancing software, are on a definite path to replacing humans, in manufacturing and beyond. “If you look at manufacturing, many jobs are already gone,” he says. “The jobs that are left for people are those that require capabilities that so far robots haven’t had, so visual perception and dexterity. But the robots are definitely moving gradually into that area. They now have much more effective and affordable vision and they can begin to manipulate the environment.

He adds: “You’re going to see factories with fewer and fewer people in them. In some cases they’ll be completely lights out, in others there’ll still be a few people. But the number will continuously decline for sure.”

Others are much more optimistic. Geoff Tranfield, group HR director at FTSE 100 engineering group IMI, feels that the above will only ever apply to simple, receptive manufacturing. For bespoke, sophisticated engineering, human ingenuity will always be needed, he feels.

Tranfield adds that combining rather than replacing humans with robots could be a way for the UK to finally put pay to its historic productivity shortfall. “Maybe things just get done better and we finally generate the growth that’s missing in the economy at the moment,” he says.

“The idea is that robots will replace some human jobs, but they’ll also create jobs,” says Sklar of the wider, non-manufacturing piece. “Every time you come up with a specialised task for a robot, you need to maintain and build it – so robotics is creating as many jobs as it’s replacing.”

So what should HR be doing now?

Preparing for job losses is of course one obvious role for HR – and one that the likes of Ford would strongly recommend.

More positively, HR will really come into its own in helping organisations collaborate, says Tranfield. No longer will employees at manufacturing and engineering firms, particularly those sat in R&D-type functions, need to work just with those within the same company, he explains.

“You as a manufacturer produce the physical, mechanical part of something; you’ve then got companies that are more into the IT systems, the data analytics side of things. So there’s definitely a very big need for them, and for academia and manufacturers, to co-operate with each other to achieve technological gain,” he says.

The skills piece will be one which affects all companies in all sectors, highlights Sklar. Not only will employees working with assistant robots in factories become, in Winfield’s words, “the programmer[s]”. So too, to some extent, will others working alongside robots – in care settings, for instance. The debate turns, then, to those conversations that HR is, hopefully, already having around digital and tech talent pipelines.

“One of the things that’s key is understanding the broad range of skills needed by someone who works with robots,” says Sklar, adding: “It’s understanding that people who comprise the workplace are going to look more interdisciplinary than they used to, and it’s going to be harder to put job candidates in particular silos, because many skills are going to become more cross-cutting.”