The future may be more about working alongside cobots than about machines taking all our jobs

  • The new Luddites: wrong now as they were then
  • Human workers aren’t going anywhere
  • Robots have real limitations
  • Enter the cobot
  • The future of automation: smaller, weaker, slower — and smarter

Fear that automation is a job-killer is nothing new. All the way back in 1811, textile workers, then at the forefront of the English economy, were outraged by the introduction of labour-saving machinery. Invoking the name of an imaginary Robin Hood-like figure, King Ludd, they broke into textile mills at night, wrecking the machinery they wrongly believed would soon leave them jobless.

The reality was that innovation would soon multiply the power of their labour, increasing productivity and the value of the woolen trade. Far from being a job killer, these new machines were engines of economic growth. The misguided men who attacked these machines became known as Luddites, a term that now signifies people who are irrationally opposed to technology or industrialisation, and it’s as useful a description in 2018 as it was then.

The new Luddites: wrong now as they were then

Workers are uneasy now, too. Especially the low-skilled fear that a new breed of machines are coming for their jobs. There’s some truth to this fear: automation of all kinds will transform the world of work. Indeed, as a Pew Research Center report predicts, of 1,896 experts they surveyed, roughly half — 48 per cent — “envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers — with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order”.

This is certainly one possibility, but it’s important to remember the lesson of the Luddites. A mistake that these reports often make is to think about automation in terms of job rather than task replacement. Especially in the industries most likely to feel the brunt of the coming changes, it’s the back-breaking, repetitive tasks that robots will steal, a theft every factory worker can cheer. Indeed, the rise of a new kind of robot — the cooperative robot or cobot — is already changing how we work. And innovative forms of automation are increasing productivity, acting as engines of growth just as the machines of the early 19th century did — creating jobs rather than destroying them.

Asian man working in lab with robot
As good as robots are at many tasks — and they can be very, very good — human workers are still necessary, even in factories and warehouses, the places automation is easiest to implement

Human workers aren’t going anywhere

That may sound counter-intuitive. How can increasing automation actually help workers? Aren’t they replaced by machines? Don’t some of them lose their jobs as a result?

Consider Amazon. This e-commerce titan has a veritable army of robots working in its fulfilment centres, and it’s steadily automating anything it can. But as Sarah Kessler writes for Quartz, “The company has over the last three years increased the number of robots working in its warehouses from 1,400 to 45,000. Over the same period, the rate at which it hires workers hasn’t changed”.

As good as robots are at many tasks — and they can be very, very good — human workers are still necessary, even in factories and warehouses, the places automation is easiest to implement. On one hand, that’s because automation can free people for value-added work. Instead of mind-numbing repetition, at its best, the robotic revolution promises more meaningful work. On the other, a range of technological problems still hobble automation. For instance, it’s easier to send a machine to medical school than it is to teach it to clean a hotel room.

Robots have real limitations

That may sound ridiculous, but it’s no less true for that. Hans Moravec, a renowned roboticist, sums it up in a pithy sentence sometimes referred to as Moravec’s Law: “It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult-level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility”.

Now think about that for a moment. Tasks that we think of as easy, say, making a bed or folding a towel, are nearly unmasterable for robots. It’s not logic these machines lack, it’s that human knack, especially when a process involves irregular variables. When everything’s the same, robots are awesome. But they struggle with difference, unpredictability, and change. For that reason, human beings will probably always find a place on the factory floor.

Enter the cobot

For a long time, the manufacturing industry’s suppliers of robots were sure that big, strong, and fast was the way to go. The enormous, dangerous, expensive kind of automation you think about when you imagine industrial robotics was all the rage. “Robots in factories have typically been large, caged devices that perform repetitive, dangerous work in lieu of humans”, CB Insights reports. That’s changing much faster than anyone predicted. And now, advances in small, agile, smart automation are taking the industry by storm, leaving many of the giants of automation playing catch-up. As Kazuo Hariki, an executive director with the automation company Fanuc, explains, “We didn’t expect large manufacturers would want to use such robots, because those robots can lift only a light weight and have limited capabilities”. What almost no one saw — only the most forward-looking grasped this idea — was that smaller, weaker, slower, and smarter were the future.

The future of automation: smaller, weaker, slower — and smarter

For instance, these cobots are small and safe, and true to their name, they offer cooperative automation. Often little larger than a person, cobots can fit where industrial-sized automation simply can’t. That means that robotic help can find a place on an assembly line, in a small fabrication shop, and in tight spaces. Not only is this a logistical gift — no more safety zones or cages around dangerous robots — it means that people and machines can work side-by-side.

As this video demonstrates, a cobot from Universal Robots can work directly with a person, increasing productivity without compromising safety:

This is possible because, unlike the previous generation of automation, cobots come equipped to keep their human co-workers from getting hurt. Here to help, they’re no good to us if we can’t work with them, and they’ve been designed to keep us safe. For instance, with force feedback sensors in place, the cobot can tell when it comes into contact with an object or person, reducing its impact to avoid even the possibility of injury. They move slowly, too, along predictable paths, and that allows people to work closely with them. And as sensor tech improves, they’ll be able to see what’s around them, noticing a human co-worker and adjusting what they’re doing to improve safety.

Just watch this video of a person intentionally making contact with a cobot from Fanuc. The robotic arm stops instantly, with almost no impact:

And they’re easy to teach, too. Rather than complex programming by experts, cobots learn collaboratively. To teach a robotic arm, for instance, a worker doesn’t need to do much more than guide the machine through the process, verify that it has the movements down, and then turn it loose to work. That saves time, avoids the need for expensive programming, and makes changing the robot’s tasks a snap.

Take a look at this video of how easy a cobot from KUKA is to program:

Cobots are here to stay, as their many advantages illustrate. And while they won’t replace the last generation of automation for heavy-lifting, they’re finding a new place working collaboratively with people. Designed to work with rather than for people, this automation revolution is all about worker augmentation, multiplying the power of human labour, and adding value to our work.

So there’s no need to worry: these cobots aren’t here for our jobs. Instead, see them as the engines for economic growth that they are. They’re not job-killers; they’re really job-creators.

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