Law and order: bringing the rules of robotics into the 21st century

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Outlining visions of physical robots living alongside humans, Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ date back to when automation was a concept that only existed in science fiction. Now, almost eighty years down the line, and we are part of a world where robotics have shifted from being an ideology to being mainstream. 

In fact, robotics has become such a key part of technological advancements that last month, the House of Lords announced the ‘Five Laws of Robotics’ – an updated set of ethical principles at the centre of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation development.   

However, while both sets of ‘laws’ were formed with robotics in mind, they weren’t created for the robots that are already working alongside humans in offices all around the world. These robots automate repetitive tasks and processes at work, enabling humans to be more productive and businesses to be more tactical. When implementing this technology, organisations have a responsibility to employees to use robotics wisely, and it is this responsibility that requires a new set of rules… 

1. Robots must automate and administrate 

Despite back-office functions being some of the most mundane areas of a business, they also present some of the biggest opportunities to become more efficient, more agile and more streamlined. However, while robotics can act as a chance for organisations to gain a competitive advantage, businesses across every industry still have employees wasting time on manual tasks that could easily be automated. According to research from Sharp, the average UK office worker wastes around 40 minutes a day due to outdated technology, totalling at least 21 days per employee, per year. 

While human employees find work such as data entry tedious and uninspiring, robotics can carry out the same task in less time and often to a better standard, eliminating the possibility of human error. Automating the back-office also frees up staff’s time to focus on more creative and strategic jobs, helping the wider business become more cutting-edge.   

2. Robots must not steal jobs 

Although robotics is growing in popularity when it comes to assisting organisations in their efforts to become more competitive, people are worried about the impact automation will have on their jobs, and more importantly, whether they will still have one. Towards the end of last year, it was predicted that up to 800 million global workers will lose their jobs by 2030 and be replaced by robotic automation. The not so glamorous reality, however, is that robots won’t be stealing our jobs, but changing them for the better, delivering better productivity and higher-paid roles. 

Although often built-up thanks to the hype surrounding artificial intelligence, robots are just data-driven pieces of software, programmed to do exactly what is asked of them. Not only does this mean they are best served to carry out lower-level tasks, it also means they lack the most obvious thing – the human element. While it is likely that some jobs will be automated, we should remember it is people that drive real value to a business, adding critical thinking, perception and personality – all things that help make an organisation successful. 

For employees to stay relevant and cement their place within the organisation, they must use the time that robotics frees up to either brush up on prior training, or look for ways to acquire new knowledge and capabilities. With the capital saved as a result of automation, companies can reinvest in employee education and training. 

3. Robots must play to their strengths 

Humans and robots are both unique groups with vastly different skillsets. While robots are best placed to carry out the same tasks day-in-day-out, humans need to feel as though they are being challenged and constantly learning. It is essential then, that as workforces become more mixed, organisations are playing to the strengths of both robots and humans. 

When we talk about robotics, we are no longer talking about simply plugging in machines in the hope that they will copy human activity. Technology has now evolved to the point at which it can be integrated into existing systems seamlessly, talking directly to applications with a built-in understanding of the end-to-end process and best practice. Not only does this mean organisations can implement robotics and get started using the technology in a very short amount of time, it also means they do not need to rely on members of staff with a certain level of expertise to manage the technology. 

If used correctly, robotics can also drive cost-savings, as high levels of automation deliver improved visibility and consistency across internal and external processes by providing a centralised platform that optimises workflows. 

4. Robots must continue to drive change 

As businesses continue to become interested in the ways robotics can help them – whether it be with scalability, transition into new markets or digital transformation projects – new roles will be created and the ‘ideal’ workplace will likely be completely reinvented. 

If we look back many years to the Industrial Revolution, the business landscape was in a similar place as it is now with robotics. People were apprehensive about the popularity and rise of new technologies, as well as nervous about how it would affect their employment. Upon reflection, not only did productivity rise, but also a mass of new opportunities were created across the country. 

With or without the rise of robotics, the way organisations run will continue to change as other technologies carry on developing. While Asimov’s laws still work for the robots he was envisioning at the time, modern robotics have advanced well beyond originally expected. The recent report from the House of Lords – AI in the UK: ready, willing and able? – claims the UK is in a strong and unique position to become a world leader in the development of artificial intelligence (AI), said to deliver a major boost to the economy in years to come. However, for organisations to truly benefit from robotics, they need to abide by the modern laws or risk wasting time, money and valuable resources.    

Neil Kinson, Chief of Staff at Redwood Software   

Image Credit: Tatiana Shepeleva / Shutterstock