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Rebecca Saenz

Management

Cobots: Safety, Training, and Ethical Considerations for Employers

AI-driven technology should lighten the load for workers, not replace them

Published: Thursday, January 27, 2022 - 13:02

There are three key things cobot developers and employers using cobots must remember when considering implementation: 1) human life takes precedence, 2) human life takes precedence, and 3) human life takes precedence.

Dictionary.com defines cobot as “a computer-controlled robotic apparatus that assists a human worker,” usually working alongside them, as suggested by the more colloquial definition of “collaborative robot.” Developers foresee cobots tackling dangerous jobs or performing monotonous tasks faster and more precisely. 

Yet the artificial intelligence (AI) factor is what dramatically separates cobots from traditional automated machinery, even if most cobots still take the form of a robotic arm. Cobots are already getting more sophisticated. At ground-level, there are still major safety, training, and ethical concerns, and we can only expect to feel those more strongly as the technology advances and more bots are deployed.

Safety concerns

Human life takes precedence, always and without exception. Cobots must be safe. Pre-programmed manufacturing robots can kill (and have killed over the years), but this much in the same way most heavy machinery can if operated improperly. Most fatalities have stemmed from humans accidentally or recklessly crossing paths with large, automated robots. But what safety hazards might AI cobots produce given that their operating parameters are more fluid?

Ideally, cobots’ AI will be refined enough to preclude accidents, with appropriate constraints and safety redundancies already in place. Realistically, the workforce will see for itself whether cobots work as well in manufacturing plants as they do in controlled laboratory settings.

It should be said regardless: Unsafe cobots have no place working alongside people, no matter how efficient or profitable they are. The slightest physical threat to humans is unacceptable, even without the reminder that a cobot-caused injury or fatality could create formidable legal storms.

Training concerns

Developers must also take the time to create appropriate training and guidance for working around cobots. Because most robot deaths have historically been caused by human error, practical training for humans is a major safety component, and it offers a smoother transition and fewer hiccups as bonuses.

Clearly, employees should know the basics of working with the bot, how to issue directives if needed, and how to turn it off. One-on-one training given by a cobot company rep is likely the best solution, followed by workshop and lab sessions where employees learn how to work most efficiently with the cobot. Ongoing user support and access to troubleshooting reps post-training is another important consideration, especially if the bot gets glitchy, or the software receives major updates. A thorough and continual training plan will help employees and businesses get the most out of the investment. 

Some of the best training might be on the part of cobot developers before a cobot is made. Developers might consider tailoring bots to specific workforce positions, working with individual businesses and employees to customize bots and draft a measured integration plan beforehand. This approach embeds the cobot with shop-specific training, which may further smooth the transition and make employees feel like the bot is prepared to work for them specifically.

Ethical concerns

Where safety concerns prioritize physical well-being, ethical concerns prioritize human values and livelihood, and cobots bring some enormous concerns.

Most people realize that an AI-fueled, cobot-incited uprising is a much smaller possibility than the very real possibility that shop-floor employees will eventually be replaced by a bionic arm. Economists have projected that up to 47 percent of American jobs will be replaced by automation during the next 20 years. Even while their employers assure them, “You’ll keep your job,” employees may see the sleek, plastic-wrapped bots roll off the delivery truck and imagine themselves pink-slipped soon after.

As more manual jobs get transferred to cobots, the shop-floor workforce will all too likely be encouraged (or prodded) to amp their skillset and “learn to code.” Seeing that this is already underway, there’s no reason to expect the current to suddenly change directions—excepting an extensive revival of pro-human values among business leaders, a hope worth maintaining.

In light of this, cobot developers must be sober about what they’re actually doing. Many enthusiastically insist cobots are purely “collaborative” and don’t replace workers. However, if the real-world trend is that cobots displace the most socio-economically vulnerable, developers likewise must revisit their claims of being helpful. Notwithstanding other ethical concerns with AI-driven cobots, this issue creates the risk of obliterating a worker’s primary wage.

Human life takes precedence

Talk to a handful of workers in manufacturing, agriculture, logging, mining, construction, carpentry, or oilfields, and you’ll soon learn that not everyone wants to be a software developer or tech specialist. Most modern technology jobs, and cobots themselves, owe their existence to success in backbone industries like these. But plenty of jobs in these industries are dangerous, tedious, or monotonous. “Smart” tools could earn their rank here, especially in assisting with the perilous and the grueling.

Cobot developers should continue to design bots for niche industries that work on dangerous operations or perform unenjoyable, high-turnover tasks, and the forward-thinking among them will aim to help professions in which their inventions will have the most impact. Ultimately, there’s a great opportunity for improving laborers’ safety; innovating high-impact, applied technology; and helping employees without subtracting from or usurping their work.

Companies looking to implement cobots should, at the very least, do no harm. Opt for cobots as tools, not as employee replacements. After all, even the most sophisticated cobots are more akin to a cardboard baler or a calculator: They don’t laugh or take pride in their work or raise children. Businesses support real people who do those things, so ethical businesses will assert a “people-first” mentality in all business aspects, with actions that follow through on that philosophy and showcase it within the company cultures.

Human life takes precedence always, and cobots can support this by lightening real burdens of the workforce, not by repopulating it.

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About The Author

Rebecca Saenz’s picture

Rebecca Saenz

Rebecca Saenz is a freelance writer, editor, and SEO specialist based in Texas.