Robots Look Friendly But Surveil, Manage Staff in Workplaces

Humans fear the very real possibility of robots replacing them in work environments, so manufacturers are doubling down on designing those robots to look friendly rather than threatening. As University of Central Florida professor Peter Hancock puts it, “it’s like Mary Poppins … a spoonful of sugar makes the robots go down.” Even if they don’t replace humans, robots already in the workplace are working in management, tracking workers’ every move, telling them to work faster, and even docking their pay.

The New York Times reports that, “Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, with about 1.5 million workers” collaborated with Carnegie Mellon University researchers and the firm Bossa Nova to “design a shelf-scanning robot that they hope both employees and customers will feel comfortable with.”

Although the robots don’t have a face, store workers have named some of them and some wear name badges. Walmart plans to “deploy the robots in 1,000 stores by the end of the year, up from about 350.” These robots can work 365 days a year, only taking short breaks to recharge their batteries, on tasks such as “scanning shelves with high-resolution cameras tabulating out-of-stock items.”

Another company, Simbe Robotics, makes its robots with eyes which, said co-founder Jeff Gee, “help customers feel comfortable with the device.” Retailers who use robots say they “free up employees from mundane and sometimes injury-prone jobs like unloading delivery trucks to focus on more fulfilling tasks like helping customers.”

For that reason, Hancock noted, “there is never going to be this great cataclysm of job loss.” Instead, he said, “it is going to be death by a thousand cuts, or death by a thousand robots.”

The Verge reports that, “the robots are here, they’re working in management, and they’re grinding workers into the ground,” whether it’s hotel housekeepers, software developers or call center workers. “These automated systems can detect inefficiencies that a human manager never would … but for workers, what look like inefficiencies to an algorithm were their last reserves of respite and autonomy.”

Their jobs, it says are “becoming more intense, stressful, and dangerous” without such breaks. For these workers, it adds, “their greatest fear isn’t that robots might come for their jobs: it’s that robots have already become their boss.” Automated management is on full display at Amazon, where “almost every aspect of [it] at the company’s warehouses is directed by software.”

One result, reported by a Center of Investigative Reporting survey of workers at 23 Amazon warehouses, is that “almost 10 percent of full-time workers sustained serious injuries in 2018, more than twice the national average for similar work.”

Wired also reports on how startup Drishti uses machine learning software to capture workers’ movements and calculate how long it takes for him to finish his work; plant managers then “use the data to track output and find and eliminate even subtle bottlenecks in production.”

“Many jobs in manufacturing require dexterity and resourcefulness … in ways that robots and software still can’t match,” says Wired. “But advances in AI and sensors are providing new ways to digitize manual labor … that gives managers new insights — and potentially leverage — on workers.”