Relying on automated technology can erode risk assessment abilities, health and our patience.
In 2017, it was estimated there were 1.9 million industrial robots around the world, up from 1.2 million in 2013. That’s an increase of 37 percent in just four years.
There are certainly many benefits to come from automation in the workplace, such as greater efficiency and freeing up the human workforce to be more creative, but over-reliance on these technologies could be detrimental.
1. Automation could make us less cautious
CSIRO research analyst Joanna Horton says that while automation is estimated to cut down workplace injuries by 11 per cent by 2030, she believes we should be wary of this technology causing a negative shift in our safety culture.
As automation continues to engulf our workplaces, Horton says we need to question if our current methods of understanding and assessing WHS risks are adequate.
Addressing the National Workers’ Compensation Summit in Melbourne recently, she used seatbelts as an example, saying that when they were first introduced people started driving more recklessly as they believed their safety was ensured by using this new safety gadget.
“The one thing we know about technology is that it’s never going to be perfect, there will always be failures and bugs,” she says.
An example of this is the Lion Air jetliner that crashed into the Java Sea last year killing all 189 people on board. Automation has generally made air travel much safer, but in this case a computer-controlled safety system started malfunctioning shortly after the plane took off, sending incorrect signals to the pilot, meaning he was unable to determine the plane’s speed.
Steve Wallace, former chief accident investigator for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, told Fortune that “there’s no question that automation has been a tremendous boon to safety in commercial aviation. At the same time, there have been many accidents where automation was cited as a factor.”
“Many trials of new autonomous systems compare computer/AI error to human error and deem a system acceptable when the error rate is an improvement on that of humans. Unlike human judgement, however, autonomous systems are often interdependent on other systems – the internet, GPS technology, IoT systems, wireless networks and central databases – and are open to hacking or remote interference,” reads CSIRO and Safe Work Workplace Safety Futures report.
2. Automation affects our health
The same CSIRO report predicts that 62 per cent of employees will be more satisfied in their jobs by 2030 after boring, repetitive tasks are phased out. However, the positive effects could be unravelled by various factors that inflate workers’ stress levels, such as increased surveillance and time management by automated systems.
“As automation and digital technologies begin to take over routine production in primary industries, jobs may increasingly become service-oriented, knowledge-intensive or computer-bound,” the report reads.
New technologies can cause workers to feel their performance and productivity levels are being closely monitored more often than before, and stress levels are increased by having to learn and adapt to new technologies. Also, an ‘always on’ culture can cause work hours to bleed into our rest and leisure time.
But it’s not all so bleak, there are technologies with health benefits.
“Sedentary lifestyles and extended screen time are associated with increased risk of diabetes, obesity, heart and cardiovascular disease, poor posture and premature mortality. These risks may be mitigated, however, by using digital technologies like wearable health monitors, interactive apps, telehealth and online communications,” according to the CSIRO and Safe Work report.
3. Robots can be really annoying
From truly mediocre robo-made pizza to the man who was accidentally fired by a robot, it’s true that technology isn’t always on our side. And while we mightn’t have to fear the rise of ‘The Terminator’ anytime soon, we are still allowed to be annoyed by robots.
A well known Japanese robot hotel, Henn-na, has decommissioned half of its robo-workforce, citing skill-shortages, malfunctioning technology and annoyed patrons as the cause.
The hotel’s 250 robot staff were brought on to ease the load for the remaining human workforce, but ended up being more trouble than they were worth. Henn-na’s robot staff were charged with manning the front desk, servicing guests through voice activated technology in their bedrooms, and moving luggage throughout the hotel.
According to reports from the Wall Street Journal, the robots were only serviced once every four years – enough time for other virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri to far surpass them. One guest reported being continuously woken up in the middle of the night to the virtual assistant ‘Churi’ saying, “Sorry, I couldn’t catch that. Could you repeat your request?” The robot was mistaking the sound of the guest’s snoring for a him asking a question.
It also seemed the robots weren’t “properly trained” for their roles. If a foreign guest was to check into the hotel, which you’d assume would happen quite often, the robots couldn’t cope. A human employee would have to step in and photocopy the guest’s passport, rendering the robot completely useless.
The president of the company that owns the hotel, Hideo Sawada, told the WSJ this was a good lesson in understanding where human workers can add value.
“When you actually use robots, you realise there are places where they aren’t needed – or just annoy people,” he says.
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