Rise of the robots: automation and tech becoming more popular as pandemic restricts human contact

Humans have long been fascinated by the idea of automatons. But increasingly, robots are also just reality as more work is automated. Automation that's exploded thanks to pandemic health concerns. This week, a look at the new rules we need to prepare for a world of automation. And, if we're going to work and live alongside robots, how do we design them so they don't creep us out?

For humans to be comfortable with robots, they must be designed in ways that don’t creep us out: researcher

Researchers from MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital hope to reduce the risk to health-care workers posed by COVID-19 by using robots to remotely measure patients’ vital signs. (MIT)

For years, the rapid advance of technology has stoked fears that robots are coming for humans' jobs.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down across the world in the spring, robots have come to the rescue — and public perception of them has become more positive as a result.

"I've noticed headlines have changed regarding robots," Julie Carpenter, a research fellow with the ethics and emerging sciences group at California State Polytechnic, told Spark host Nora Young.

"It's definitely pivoted from 'The robots are coming for your jobs' headlines to, 'Robots in the pandemic, and they'll save us all by shining UV light on everything,' and that sort of thing."

Headlines — and novel photographs — have depicted machines of all levels of sophistication bridging the gap between physically-distanced humans.

In Toronto, the Tiny Mile AI robot is making food deliveries instead of couriers — at a discounted rate for restaurants compared to third-party delivery apps.

Robots with powerful UV lights are being used to disinfect everything from hospitals in China to a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Manitoba.

And in a Boston hospital, a doglike robot named Spot takes COVID patients' vital signs, reducing health-care workers' risk of contracting the coronavirus.

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Robotics can complement jobs, not replace them: prof

For all that robots and technology have done to help keep us safe during the pandemic, it hasn't completely assuaged fear of its effect on the job market.

A Statistics Canada study released in June estimated that office support workers, salespeople and employees in industrial or construction trades were far more likely to lose their jobs to automation than people in careers like law, education and government.

The study noted, however, that COVID-19 may affect those projections in ways that are "largely unknown and dependent on several factors," the study authors wrote.

Frank Pasquale says the future of work involves collaboration between artificial intelligence and human skill in ways that can lead to better work outcomes, as well as greater general prosperity. (Larry Gibson/Harvard University Press/CBC)

"The closure of workplaces during the pandemic and efforts to minimize physical contact between people may motivate employers to 'virus-proof' their production practices by adopting technological solutions. Additionally, many businesses have moved much of their sales and customer services online, increasing their reliance on digital technologies," they explained.

In the U.S., Time's Alana Semeuls explained that in the late 1800s and 1900s, companies retrained employees for new jobs to replace old jobs transformed by increasing automation and industrialization. And governments invested in education, as a workforce largely made up of farmers diversified into bankers, engineers and more.

But today, tax incentives in the U.S. mean companies might pay less tax purchasing equipment than spending the same amount of money hiring workers.

However, Frank Pasquale, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, argues that human jobs don't have to be traded in for the inevitable advances in technology and artificial intelligence.

In his book New Laws of Robotics: Defending Human Expertise in the Age of AI, he draws a line between AI, or artificial intelligence, and what he calls I.A., or intelligence augmentation.

He gave an example of an AI robot doctor scanning a patient and handing out a diagnosis, compared to a human doctor using an advanced scanner to compare a person's vital signs to millions of archived images of cancerous and non-cancerous cells to help aid the diagnosis.

"The idea is that ultimately you'd have the doctor as an intermediary between the technology and [the] person who's being treated," he said.

A Lytbot disinfection robot and electrostatic portable sprayer robot was recently donated to the Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre in Manitoba. (Submitted by Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre)

As of now, a robot programmed with preferred responses to a patient or customer's questions is no substitute for genuine person-to-person communication — and Pasquale argues it's foolish to pretend otherwise.

"The robot may simulate emotion and empathy, but because it is itself not mortal … it is sort of a counterfeiting of the human ability to understand, reflect, [and] empathize," he said.

He developed four "new laws of robotics" to navigate its growing role in society, a play on sci-fi author Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics introduced in the 1942 short story Runaround.

Pasquale's new laws are:

  • Employ robotics and A.I. in ways that complement professionals, instead of replacing them.

  • Prevent robots from mimicking human qualities like empathy or emotion

  • Avoid "arms races" between robotics researchers.

  • Keep record of who designed or controls a robot, in order to know who to contact — or hold responsible — in case something goes wrong.

Robotic tools, or companions?

As the pandemic thrusts robots and automation further into the mainstream spotlight, some people may find them unusual, or even unnerving.

Carpenter explained that many people's expectations of robots are based in science fiction. And in the West, at least, those depictions are often threatening. For every R2-D2 in Star Wars, she says, you'll find a seething Terminator — or the murderous robot dog in Black Mirror.

"It's a combination of fascination at the technology, but also a little bit of fear [and] trepidation because they don't understand its capabilities and its limitations," said Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter says her research of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) personnel and their interactions with robots has implications for many fields. (Submitted by Julie Carpenter/Routledge/CBC composite)

If you're introducing robots into the workplace, she said, talk to your colleagues about what they're being used for, and how they might affect everyone's work.

"Have discussions with your staff. Say, this is what we're thinking about. These are the robots we're looking at. This is how your job might change," she said.

Sometimes, Carpenter added, people might be more willing to embrace robots in the workplace if they take on a familiar form — like how the four-legged Spot resembles a dog.

But she noted that people can develop an attachment to robots simply because of the roles they play, even without anthropomorphizing them.

Carpenter studied how the U.S. military uses robots for tasks like bomb disposal for her book Culture and Human-Robot Interaction in Militarized Spaces.

She found that many U.S. military forces use robots for sensitive or dangerous tasks, such as explosive disposal. Even though they looked more like miniature tanks, some soldiers would give them names, or consider them a mascot for their unit.

"I want to emphasize, though, they would never regard it the same as a human teammate, at this point," she said.

"But you can see … that we're navigating and negotiating where robots fit into our lives, even socially."

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