February 18, 2014      

A distinguished group of stakeholders in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and 21st century automation recently gathered in Washington, D.C. for the one-day conference “The Future of the Workforce: How the Robotics Revolution will Shape the Employment and Labor Law Landscape.”

The event, facilitated by Garry Mathiason, chairman of the law firm Littler Mendelson, a pioneer in exploring the interaction between machines and individuals in the workplace, was designed as an incubator, encouraging sharing of information, experiences, and predictions. It will be the first of many dialogues on legislation, regulation and compliance as employers, employees and government officials feel their way while “gee whiz” technology becomes routine.

“It is estimated that by 2025, half of the jobs in the United States will be performed by brilliant machines and intelligent systems,” Mathiason notes. “Creators and manufacturers of these new technologies must develop products that fall within the strictures of labor and employment laws. Ensuring compliance with (these) laws will help keep the focus on their product as opposed to avoidable and costly lawsuits.”

In conjunction with the event, Littler Mendelson will release a preliminary report, “The Transformation of the Workplace Through Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Automation” (available in May) The report is a lead-in to Littler’s Executive Employer Program on May 7-9, 2014, which will bring together HR professionals from around the world. The report identifies employment and labor law issues, addresses practical solutions, and seeks to anticipate and help to direct regulatory and legislative response.

Here are some of the key issues discussed during the event:

Employees: Fear or Opportunity?

Roundtable participants had many stories to tell about taking employees from fear of losing their jobs to robots, AI and automation to embracing the new technologies and machines as a means for advancement. One example: exoskeletons. Increasing use of these devices were greeted with skepticism by physical therapists who feared their services would be supplanted. Now therapists are realizing that exoskeletons free them to be more observant of their patients’ progress, and actually help them do their job better.

Related: Robots, the Workplace and the Law

Similar experiences were reported in construction and other industries. The key is making these advances make sense to employers. For example, improved safety translates into fewer workers compensation claims, which leads to more productivity, which leads to a more stable workforce because employees are learning to use brains not brawn.

A video on the transition of production operations at Marlin Steel Wire Products highlighted the buy-in of employees who now, instead of hand-manufacturing and packaging, have learned to program and guide the machines that are enabling the firm to win contracts it could not have even bid before.

The bottom line: increased quality, productivity, worker safety and job satisfaction, wages, benefits and job training are great for management and labor.

Are We Versatile Enough?

The U.S. economy has always adapted because of automation, but the evolution from a predominantly agrarian economy to the industrial age to the space age took decades, even centuries to evolve. Now changes are measured in single years, months (weeks, days?). How can we keep up?

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education plays a role, particularly at the local level in high schools and community colleges to promote student interest and provide job training. The key for the education system and for employers is to instill excitement among existing and future employees to understand that the new systems are tools, not replacements for their jobs. A sense of “ownership” is vital, as is the commitment to making technology work with people.

The Role of Government

Members of Congress were sent home in advance of the snowstorm that was about to paralyze the D.C. area, so Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), Co-Chair of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Robotics Caucus, was not able to attend the roundtable. But Tommy Nguyen, Staff Director of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, discussed the upcoming reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act.

This law provides incentives for state and local governments and local employers to provide education, job training and retraining. Its purpose is to decentralize control away from Washington to allow leaders “on the ground” to identify skills needed and how best to attain them. Congress is trying to ensure that these programs are business-driven rather than increasing redundancy of federal programs.

Nguyen concluded that “technology moves so fast, and Congress is so slow.” Also, as one Roundtable participant noted, only a slight percentage of the public understands what robots and artificial intelligence really entail, leading to regulations that can get out of hand. This led to discussion of the need to globalize labor laws.

Many of the roundtable participants reported that labor and safety laws are hindering U.S. industrial growth, especially in competition with China. Closer to home, the International Labour Organization is conducting a study for the European Union Parliament that is expected to greatly influence legislation, regulations and agreements among EU members.