Robots: are they job terminators or simply misunderstood?

Robots taking over humanity is a familiar trope in popular culture. While scenes of the machines gaining sentience have captured our imagination, it is very far from reality.

It’s clear that we need to separate fact from fiction when it comes to robotics. Instead, we need to focus on the impact they’re having on society and the workplace currently – but there’s lots the general public may not know about robots.

Robots do the dirty work

Robotics isn’t exactly a new concept. But robots are now quickly becoming integral to the operations of a range of industries like manufacturing, agriculture, construction and healthcare. They’ve also become part of the average consumers daily life from autonomous cleaning robots in airports to robots that are designed to deliver food to households. This means we are more exposed to the concept than ever.

While the rhetoric may be that they are replacing humans in these industries, what we need to be publicising is that many robots – particularly collaborative robots (cobots) – are actually designed to work alongside humans. Dirty, physically demanding or repetitive tasks can be performed by the robot so that employees can concentrate on more fulfilling tasks.

The robots can also run at hours when human workers would rather not, offering “lights out” operation. In theory, this would reduce time spent at work and could even get rid of the night shift which is known to have adverse effects on employees’ health.

Plugging the labour gap

Of course, technology will eliminate certain jobs – but it will also create new higher value roles that will attract workers to industries that are struggling to recruit. For instance, in manufacturing, which is typically more a physically demanding industry, lots of older workers are retiring early as a result. In tandem, fewer younger people are choosing to enter the sector which is causing a shrinking of the workforce pool.

Robots can give older workers a helping hand by offering a better work-life balance, instead of highly-intensive, laborious jobs based around long shift work. They will also open up new roles within the business such as robot engineer, data analytics or AI manager, roles which younger workers are finding themselves more drawn to.

Companies of all sizes can benefit

For many years, industrial robots meant large-scale production robots operating in isolation, safely caged off to prevent any accidents. Since Universal Robots (cl) sold the first commercially viable cobot in 2008, it has opened the door to automation for smaller companies.

Unlike traditional industrial robots that are typically more expensive and require specialised programming, cobots are flexible, more user-friendly and have a smaller footprint. From assisting human pickers in warehouses, to automating parts of laboratory experiments, the versatility of cobots makes them perfect for businesses that have varying production needs and require switching between tasks frequently.

It’s not a question of either/or for smaller companies versus larger companies. Although, traditional robots remain an essential part of operations for large companies, cobots can be swiftly integrated into existing production lines, working with the industrial robots to increase quality and safety while reducing downtime of the machines.

So, how do we continue to change perceptions?

As we ponder the future, it’s important to steer away from dystopian narratives and embrace the transformative possibilities that robots offer. Rather than acting as job terminators, robots emerge as catalysts for innovation and a better work-life balance.

As communications professionals, it’s our responsibility to help change these perceptions. By collaborating with companies in the automation space, we have the opportunity to put a spotlight on the advantages robots bring to society – everything from helping the over 50s back into work to improving safety in the workplace. As demonstrated by Universal Robots’ President Kim Povlsen in a feature in The Economist, the time has come to embrace robots with open arms instead of fearing them.