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Pandemic pain is fueling robo-realism

The spread of coronavirus has increased the demand for robots -- and business leaders are already thinking about the next pandemic. In order to be successful, we must use robots to contribute to work that humans find meaningful.

By Evan Selinger , written on March 26, 2021

From The Culture Desk

Financial Times columnist Sarah O’Connor recently wrote the type of humility-driven reflection I wish pervaded tech coverage. She begins “Why I was wrong to be optimistic about robots” with an about-face confession that won’t surprise anyone steeped in political economy, but nevertheless is a refreshingly honest dose of fourth estate realism. 

“I used to be a techno-optimist,” O’Connor declares. But now pandemic-fueled robotics trends are coming into focus, and it’s harder to deny the idealism crushing power of capitalism. O’Connor acknowledges “dehumanization and intensification of work” are paramount dangers.        

 

While nothing is guaranteed, the coronavirus pandemic sure looks like an inflection point for robotic labor

For starters, the danger of viral infection is spurring growth in mobile robots that can sanitize surfaces. This measure won’t be temporary. 

When historian Ruth Schwarz Cowan studied how the introduction of devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners impacted the average American household from the 1960s through the 1980s, she discovered that automating more aspects of chores didn’t really change how much unpaid labor housewives performed compared with their predecessors in the early 20th century. Why weren’t these affordable, easy to use machines ideal examples of automation? In part, it’s because social standards of cleanliness changed. “When armed with a vacuum cleaner,” the historian wrote, “housewives whose parents had been poor could keep more space cleaner than their mothers and grandmothers would have ever believed possible.” 

Flash forward to today. Michael Kosla, vice president of LG Business Solutions USA, states disinfecting robots provide people with “peace of mind.” He predicts that “A higher level of disinfection is going to become the new customer expectation in the new contactless economy where we now all live, work, learn and play.”

More cleaning robots is just the beginning. Will pandemic problems like increasing isolation lead to greater adoption of social robots? David Hanson, founder and chief of Hanson robotics, the company that makes the controversial humanoid robot Sophia, wants us to think so. He claims human-like robots “can be so useful during these times when people are terribly lonely.” While time will tell if he’s right, other robotic trends have solidified. As O’Connor notes, increased demand for online commerce already prompted industry to respond by further automating warehouse labor. Gap Inc., for example, is investing in robotic sorters and storage and retrieval systems. Analysts predict that “the global warehouse automation market will increase from $15bn in 2019 to $30bn by 2026.” 

While the potential for lock-in effects accompanies any significant technological investment, futurists like P.W. Singer warn that the widespread economic devastation experienced during the pandemic will impact how many businesses manage long-term risk. When I asked Singer if it’s reasonable to expect that the end of the pandemic will mean a return to normalcy, he confirmed my suspicion that such hopes are wishful thinking. “Business leaders are already thinking about the next pandemic,” he responded. To avoid, or at least be less disrupted by future events that predictably will prevent sick and scared humans from coming to work, Singer believes entrepreneurs see the wisdom in a draconian imperative: “automate as much of the workforce as they can.” 

 

Here’s the bottom line, entrepreneurial, pandemic take-away...

Robots are good because they can’t catch COVID-19 and won’t call in sick. Robots are good because they can be continually productive without complaining about repetitive work and long hours. And, robots are good because even during a crisis they won’t ask for benefits or try to unionize. 

O’Connor isn’t disillusioned simply because society is growing more dependent on robotic labor. After all, debates about gain in automation leading to humans becoming deskilled and unemployed have been going on for quite some time. And more recent but still well-known discussions clarify why white collar and manual labor jobs alike might be vulnerable to being replaced. 

But even with all of the reasons to be worried about robots at work, there’s hope for a future where robots and humans collaborate and create synergy based on their respective strengths. Indeed, in law professor Frank Pasquale’s brilliant book, New Law of Robotics: Defending Human Expertise in the Age of AI, he argues that for humans to have a collectively prosperous future, “robotic systems and AI should complement professionals, not replace them.”        

 

Unfortunately, some of the human-robot collaborations that are occurring now are far from ideal

O'Connor points out that while Amazon’s robots spare warehouse workers from walking around by bringing shelves to them, remaining stationary for an extended period can be hard on the human body. Instituting this type of robot-human workflow has consequences because it doesn’t give sufficient regard for human vulnerability. “Injury rates” are “significantly higher at Amazon’s robotic warehouses than its traditional ones.” Things have gotten so bad that an Amazon warehouse worker says the company is optimizing labor to eliminate “micro rests.” That such vocabulary even exists testifies to how inhumane Taylorism has become!

The problem, here, isn’t that good ideas for how to work with robots are hard to come by. In “Robots in the Workplace: a Threat to—or Opportunity for—Meaningful Work,” Jiles Smids, Sven Nyolm, and Hannah Berkers integrate research in philosophy, sociology, economics, and organizational psychology to clarify how robots can contribute to work that humans find meaningful. 

Meaningful work, they contend, has five key aspects: it’s purpose-driven; it includes good social relationships; it allows people to exercise skills and cultivate self-development; it’s a source of self-esteem and positive recognition from others; and, it provides opportunities for workers to exercise their autonomy, including by voicing concerns to managers who take their input seriously.

Management thus should strive for corresponding goals: assign tasks to robots that don’t deprive human workers of a sense of purpose; create workplaces where robots don’t deprive human workers of essential interpersonal contact; be sensitive to how assigning robots tasks can augment or diminish the skillful contributions human workers can make; be thoughtful about how assigning robots tasks can reduce or expand how human workers experience self-esteem and social recognition; and, be careful when delegating more control to robots because it can diminish how human workers exercise autonomy.

Building upon these insights in “Automation, Work, and the Achievement Gap,” John Danaher and Sven Nyholm offer several suggestions for how management can respond to the threats automation poses to meaningful work. For example, in situations where machines make large contributions to the production process, look for ways to insert the “human touch.” In a heavily automated furniture factory, this could involve human workers contributing to the final phase of building chairs and tables by adding “distinctive carvings” – markings that require freedom and creativity to bring about.      

There are plenty of other suggestions that conscientious companies can follow when deciding what robots to use and how to deploy them. But as I said, limited insight isn’t the issue. Solving political economy problems fundamentally requires changing power dynamics. O’Connor states this perfectly. Challenging the status quo, she argues, “will require different choices and a different distribution of power in the workplace.”   

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