The cobot controversy – Part 1

“The cobot controversy” is the title of a short article published by and on the Hannover Messe (“Hannover Fair”, the industry exhibition) website.

http://www.hannovermesse.de/en/news/the-cobot-controversy.xhtml

The article can be read in English as well as in German (assumed original version). This article proposes a “balanced” view about the impact of the collaborative robots (cobots) on the jobs in industry.

It caught my interest because most often the articles on those subjects, i.e. robots and future of jobs are single-sided.

  • On the one hand promoters of the factory of the future, industry 4.0 and robotics only highlight the alleged benefits of the new technologies.
  • On the other hands, prophets of doom predict nothing else than mass extinction of jobs.

Published by what can be considered the Mecca of Germany’s Industrie 4.0, the showplace of the most recent and finest developments in cyber physical systems, automation and more, it is fair (no pun intended…) to present the flip side of the coin.

Furthermore, some references to studies cited in the article are interesting. For instance the fact that “robots are replacing tasks, not jobs”. Digging deeper into this one, I read that usually analysts assume that the whole job is taken over by automation or robots when in fact only specific tasks are. This is mainly because the analysts remained on a macro level.

Now, can this invalidate the initial assumption: robots won’t replace humans at work?

When observing any person in its daily work, many of the tasks done are not described in the work instructions neither in the procedures and many tasks are not even part of the job description.

This can have several reasons:

  • people not sticking to the work instructions and taking liberties
  • reacting to unexpected situations that require decision and action on the spot
  • impossibility to describe every possible situation in work instructions and procedures
  • broad guidelines as instructions, relying on human know-how to carry out the tasks
  • etc.

The human workers defenders will argue that humans are irreplaceable when facing an unexpected situation, something that is likely to happen (very) frequently. They may be right, but with regards to old automation constraints and algorithm programming.

Until relatively recently, automation required accurate positioning and low variability for automated machines or robots to operate. Programming was linear and only capable to adjust on programmed variations. With the all the progress in various fields, objects positioning is no longer a hard constraint and systems are increasingly capable to adjust to unexpected situations.

Machines, in the broadest meaning of the word, are also increasingly capable to learn and adapt. Therefore, the assumption of the irreplaceable human is losing its validity as the machines’ abilities improve.

When observing humans work, is it also common to see them take deliberate liberties with the list of tasks, because of their inability to keep focused over time, because they are convinced to know better or because they lack the self-discipline to stick to instructions.

Humans introduce many variations and not always for good reasons, therefore praising the vast variety of tasks the human do must be considered with care. For the same reason, stating that “robots are replacing tasks, not jobs”, based on such observations without a critical discrimination of the necessity and added-value of the human tasks, might be wrong.

Why? When going for automation, the engineers will analyze the process and concentrate on the core activities. They may well ignore many special issues a human will take care of, but also ignore all the unnecessary or deviant activities human will add. More or less, this analysis will discriminate necessary from unnecessary tasks, value-added from waste.

Comments welcome.


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One thought on “The cobot controversy – Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Cobot Controversy | Christian Hohmann | Michel Baudin's Blog

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