September 21, 2017      

Editor’s Note: Executives and engineers charged with implementing automation in their companies must be able to identify and explain legal compliance issues to their boards and company leadership. During the RoboBusiness session “How to Manage Staffing and Morale During Robotics Adoption,” Littler’s Robotics, AI & Automation Practice Group will advise companies how to adapt their compliance systems and prepare for the legislative and regulatory obstacles they will face in the U.S. and abroad.

By Matthew Scherer, Natalie Pierce, and Garry Mathiason | Littler Robotics, AI, and Automation Practice Group

From the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, society has lived in a state of perpetual anxiety that human workers can — and eventually will — be replaced by machines. During the Industrial Revolution, the first waves of automation threatened the jobs of agricultural and manufacturing workers, and transformed the nature of the work for those that remained.

Through all this, however, the jobs of professionals and many highly skilled laborers remained largely immune from automation’s effects.

With the rise of robotics and recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI), that is no longer the case. Modern robots can perform tasks requiring a level of physical dexterity that machines were previously thought incapable of achieving. AI systems perform tasks that once were the exclusive province of well-educated humans. As a result, the labor-market upheaval brought about by industrialization now threatens, through the AI and robotics revolution, to permeate nearly all industries.

The rise of the robots and advent of AI

Recent developments in robotics promise to greatly expand the number and nature of physical tasks that can be automated. Traditionally, industrial robots have been locked behind cages, their heavy bulk and rapid movements making them unsafe for human interaction. Such robots required highly trained programmers to set their tasks at the outset. Once installed, the massive machines were rarely moved.

But the emergence of collaborative robots, or “cobots,” promises to transform robotics’ role in the physical workplace. Cobots’ smaller physical footprint, lighter physical touch, and nimbler abilities make them easier to integrate among employees and existing machines than earlier technologies. Their comparatively low cost has, for the first time, made integrating robotics in the workplace an economically viable option for employers of all sizes. Already, cobots are being seen in industries ranging from manufacturing to aircraft maintenance to hospitality and elder care.

But as fascinating as cobots’ capabilities are, perhaps their most interesting feature is that they are designed to work alongside humans rather than apart from them. Indeed, the entire point of a “collaborative” robot is they can physically interact with humans in a shared workspace. The promise of cobots is not that they can replace human workers wholesale, but rather allow for the automation of specific job functions, increasing human workers’ productivity and freeing them to focus on higher-value tasks.

Labor Law Robotics

This free report from Littler breaks down the areas of employment and labor law most impacted by robotics and AI. Click the image above to read the report.

The changes that cobots promise to bring to physical workplaces are paralleled in the professional world with the rapid recent advances in AI. From education to medicine to law, AI is playing an increasingly prominent role in virtually every industry where data analytics and predictive modeling play a key role.

The impact of AI and robotics on the workforce

Through these rapid developments in robotics and AI, we can expect massive job displacement, but also massive new and downstream job creation. Such workplace displacement might trigger notice requirements, severance benefits and retraining obligations. Wearable and performance-enhancing devices (such as exoskeletons) pose unique compliance challenges and opportunities under workers’ compensation, OSHA, wage and hour, and disability legal regimes. AI and big data will also raise first-of-their-kind issues relating to workplace privacy and discrimination.

How can employers prepare to meet these challenges?

Stay competitive by making sure your organization engages in regular analysis of existing and new automation and robotics technologies designed to increase efficiencies and productivity. What can be automated likely will be by those corporations looking to compete on a global scale.

Next, when employers choose to proceed with the introduction of a robot or AI system to the workplace, analysis of worker skills sets may reveal an opportunity to “elevate rather than eliminate” employees. This was discovered recently by Accenture, when the Company automated 17,000 back-office jobs without laying off employees. Is there an opportunity to re-position employees?

If so, employers should ensure employees are properly retrained for different positions or trained on how to use the new systems introduced into the workplace. Employees should be given a complete understanding of each system’s capabilities, the requirements for safe operation, and any key limitations on the tasks that the system can perform. Poor training could result in under-utilization or improper uses of a new system, which will frustrate both employers and employees alike.

Employers can manage employee morale during the transition by being open with employees about the reasons the robot or AI system was brought in. If there are no plans to lay off any workers in connection with the adoption of the new system, an employer can allay employee concerns by making it clear that the workers’ jobs are not in jeopardy, and that the new technologies actually may enhance their productivity and create new economic opportunities. This will reduce workers’ understandable hesitation regarding working alongside machines they think may one day replace them.

The growth of technology is certain and inevitable. Anticipating the legal issues and developing a compliance plan will facilitate these changes, making the transformation less traumatic and more immediately successful. Most importantly, navigating the robotic revolution will require careful planning on the part of employers and great attunement to the needs and concerns of employees.

About Littler’s Robotics, AI, and Automation Practice Group
To assist employers making decisions today that will be judged in the future, Littler formed its Robotics, AI, and Automation Practice Group, which is devoted to the exponential growth of workplace AI/Robotics and the employment and labor law challenges it creates. You can learn more about our compliance services here.