Robotic systems have historically been kept separate from humans, and tucked away deep in factory lines. But as robots start mingling with humans in their workplaces, what is work going to look like?
If you go to the Makr Shakr bar in Milan, a top-notch rooftop venue overlooking the city’s famous cathedral, you won’t be greeted by any bartenders — that is, of the human kind.
Instead, you’ll be able to order your cocktail via an app, playing around with how strong you want the drink to be, or selecting add-ons like bitters or lemon; and your order will be sent straight to the double-armed robot working behind the bar.
Emanuele Rossetti, CEO of Makr Shakr, explains that the robot can be up to four times faster than a real-life bartender in preparing customers’ drinks. “But that’s not very fun to watch,” he argues, and so the robotic arms have been slowed down to match the pace of a human.
The Makr Shakr can prepare two types of drink: easy ones, like a rum and coke, but also the more complex ones, which require the shaking-and-stirring that are the signature moves of bartenders.
That’s not to say that the Makr Shakr can do entirely without humans. More delicate and creative tasks, like garnishing a cocktail, still have to be done by flesh-and-bone bartenders.
Rossetti explains that, more than anything else, the technology’s speed and precision support the work of humans. At peak hours, a real-life bartender is always at the bar next to the robot; but the technology lets them delegate drinks like a vodka-lemonade, and instead focus on cocktails that require more of a human touch.
More importantly, the robot is utterly incapable of coming up with new cocktails; rather, it repeats the recipes invented by human professionals. “The bartender can invent any recipe and teach the robot how to repeat it,” says Rossetti. “The machine has no capacity to decide what goes in a cocktail. It just has the speed and precision to repeat something it was shown by a human.”
It remains that in the bar, the robot is the star of the show. Many customers come specifically to see it, film it, talk about it, and Instagram it. With reason: finding a robot at work in a familiar setting like a bar is new and exciting.
As Rossetti says: “Robots are common in a factory, but not in a normal environment.” He certainly has a point: while robotic technologies are nowhere near new, they have until now been kept at a safe distance from humans, mostly tucked away in factory lines and other industrial settings.
Escaping the factory
Humans and robots are even kept away from each other in law, to protect people from injury. The International Standards Organization’s (ISO) safety requirements for industrial robots typically require that workers be prevented from getting anywhere near a robotic system.
Things are changing, and the technology is gradually evolving from industrial, automated factory arms, towards resembling the robots typically found in science fiction: more human-like, and a lot more present in familiar settings.
Rather than being shoved away in safe spaces, robots are increasingly sharing our workplaces. Amazon’s warehouses are already crowded with 200,000 robotic pickers, who work directly alongside hundreds of thousands of human staff to put together and ship customer orders at speed.
Dussmann, one of Germany’s largest cleaning companies, is deploying robotic cleaners to its offices, which can autonomously detect dirt on the floor, or waste that needs removing. Similarly, Google’s Alphabet X is working on an ‘Everyday Robot Project’, for robots to whizz around the office sorting through waste, to make sure that items are trashed in the correct recycling bins.
In the hospitality industry too, the technology is taking on a new role. The Makr Shakr is by no means the only robot tending to customer requests. From Zume’s robotic pizzaiolo to Softbank’s plan to open a cafe run by a handful of ‘Peppers’, the company’s humanoid robot, the line separating humans and robotic systems at work is vanishing.
The trend has a name: so-called ‘collaborative robots’, or ‘cobots’, are those designed for direct interaction with humans. In particular, cobots can come in the form of service robots, which perform tasks that assist humans outside of industrial automation applications, such as customer service, cleaning, delivery or even surgery.
And they are growing. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), global sales for service robots reached almost $13 billion last year, and have been increasing since 2017. The organization predicts “a strong sales increase” in the coming years, particularly of robotic systems used for logistics, which are expected to more than double by 2022.
This type of collaborative automation has long been anticipated by experts. A recent study by Oxford University showed that by 2035, up to three-quarters of retail jobs could be automated, as well as 86% of restaurant jobs.
The COVID effect
And an unexpected boost to automation projects has come with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which is generating renewed interest in any technology that can help reduce contact between humans, thus making some workplaces safer.
In the Dutch city of Maastricht, robotic trio Amy, Aker and James are dishing out food to customers in a newly re-opened restaurant. Meanwhile, a robot is serving beer in a South Spain bar; and Alexia, 1.60-metres tall, and heavy with 80 kilograms of robotic wires, is helping waiters tend tables in a socially distanced manner in a Pamplona restaurant.
Back in Milan, Makr Shakr’s Rossetti says: “Right now, with COVID-19, we are having huge numbers of requests. In our system, you order and pay through your cellphone, the robot produces a cocktail in a disposable cup that you trash. There is no contact with a human being, and zero risk of infection.”
In fact, a recent report from research firm McKinsey found that the jobs most at risk from the COVID-19 crisis were also those most likely to be automated in the next few years: namely, customer service and sales, food services and building occupations.
Even regulations are keeping up with the robotic takeover of the workplace. In 2016, the ISO realised, while revising its standards for industrial robots, that the rules were becoming obsolete. “If an application will not hurt and injure a human, why not allow contact?” asked the regulators. And so, ISO/TS 15066 was born: a standard to make interaction possible between humans and cobots at work.
The traditional guards and protective devices keeping workers and robots apart were removed, to allow an “overlapping workspace” between humans and some robotic systems. But while the rules recognise that the nature of robotic work has changed, they still show some uncertainty when it comes to actually deploying the technology.
Risk assessments are required to be carried out regularly to make sure that collaboration is safe for workers — which is made particularly tricky because cobots tend to be mobile. Roberta Nelson Shea, convener of the ISO group on industrial safety, advises business leaders to identify all the tasks and hazards associated with the technology, and to then go through risk estimation and reduction.
Particular care needs to be taken in the case of customer-facing cobots, such as those found in the hospitality sector. “The concept of service robots is robots that can be used where almost anyone can be exposed to the hazards,” Nelson Shea told ZDNet. “For example, toddlers, babies crawling, kids climbing, adults, or the elderly. The people involved in service robot standardisation need to address that.”
The ISO itself admits that the latest standards are only a first step for a developing industry, and that more work will need to be done as the technology develops.
Jürgen von Hollen is the president of robotics company Universal Robots, which produces cobots for customers interested in automating parts of their workforce’s activities. An early mover in the space of collaborative robots, von Hollen explained that legal issues were initially a direct challenge to the business.
“The regulation that is driving the industry was developed 20 years ago,” he told ZDNet. “When we came in, the concept in front of us was that machines were to be kept away from humans. That was still the case five years ago, but things are changing rapidly. The laws are evolving, and it’s an on-going process even as we speak.”
Now, what von Hollen sees as the biggest obstacle to cobots is awareness of what the technology can do for businesses — and how easily it can do it. Universal Robots, in fact, promises that the company’s platform and online courses will let anybody program a robot in less than 87 minutes, with or without an engineering degree.
This is because, for those who have never dealt with robotics, the whole concept might seem difficult, complex, and out of their control. Von Hollen remembers one of his customers based in a rural part of the US, whose business sands and polishes metal parts. “It was his son who had called us in,” says von Hollen.
“In that area, not that many automation engineers are available,” he adds. “The shop owner told me from the start that he was very sceptical that the technology would work at all. He was standing in the background when we showed the proof-of-concept. Just 20 minutes in, he said he’d buy it.”
When he went up to the business owner to ask why his son had suddenly seen a case for deploying a robot, von Hollen was surprised to find out that the motive was not financial. Rather than wanting to boost productivity, his customer was concerned with one of his employees, who had been working on the production line for 17 years, doing the same repetitive job.
The employee was developing arthritis in her shoulder and elbow, and her employer felt accountable for it. “We’ve developed many jobs in which humans behave like robots,” says von Hollen, “and which don’t make them happy. They are monotonous, repetitive, tough roles, which most of us don’t want to do. But they still have to be done. Those are the areas we are looking at for cobots.”
Will a robot take your job or improve it?
Von Hollen’s comments are reflective of an often-heard defence of the rise of robots, in the face of employees scared that automation will take their jobs. In Europe, McKinsey reports that almost 23% of jobs are at risk of being replaced by robots in the next ten years, as about a fifth of work-related activities become automated.
Despite the ominous numbers, experts don’t expect major job cuts anytime soon. Rather, the nature of work will shift, as robots take on the boring and the mundane, and employees are given more freedom to focus on tasks that require human input, such as creativity, interaction, management or teamwork. McKinsey, in fact, expects that the demand for socio-emotional skills will go up by a third.
In a way, this is only a natural continuation of work. Will Venters, assistant professor of information systems from the London School of Economics’ department of management, argues that humans and technology have always worked together. Robots are being brought into the workplace; but often, this same workplace is already embedded with technology designed to enhance human productivity.
“The difference is, a lot of the existing technology doesn’t look human, and I think that works better for humans to understand their place,” says Venters. “On the other hand, a lot of the automation work seems to be around anthropomorphising the robots. That brings about the fear that these things will replace humans.”
What we call robots, says Venters, is only the most sophisticated technology that we have today, and is no different from the tools of the past. There was never fear that the electric drill could take over the job of a builder, and the same applies to robots, no matter how human-like they are.
In its London headquarters, digital marketing company Brainlabs has had a robotic receptionist for three years now. The company purchased one of Softbank’s Pepper robots to greet visitors once they reach the office floor’s main entrance, and to notify the relevant person by email that their guest has arrived. Pepper can even do some entertaining while visitors wait, informing them about the weather forecast or preparing them a coffee via a wi-fi-enabled coffee machine.
The company’s CEO, Daniel Gilbert, stresses that the person who used to do Pepper’s job is still a Brainlabs employee. But before the robot joined the team, explains Gilbert, the company’s (human) receptionist had to split her time between looking after the office and bookkeeping with greeting visitors, which she found disturbed her workflow.
“By automating the basic, repetitive task of welcoming visitors, we freed our office manager’s time to focus on more interesting aspects of her job,” Gilbert told ZDNet. “In other words, things that robots and AI can’t do.”
In a way, the decision to purchase the robot is no different to coming up with a code to automate reporting, or with filters to move emails into certain folders in Gmail. Plus, argues Gilbert, automation leads to cost-cutting and business growth — and that in turn generates job growth. In other words, hiring robots ultimately leads to hiring humans.
And one thing is certain: communicating the right message to employees is key to on-boarding any robot. As humanoid as it can get, a robot is only another workplace tool; and it is vital that human employees know that they are still part of the mix.
“We were always very clear about the fact that we weren’t hiring a robot to replace a single employee,” says Gilbert. Pepper, as a result, was welcomed by his human colleagues, who have now grown used to the robot’s presence, and even created personal reactions for it to say when their name is given by a visitor.
The Brainlabs CEO’s top tip for a smooth transition to automation? A renewed focus on the human workforce, which reflects that management cares about employee development.
Robots and HR
Research firm Gartner even suggested that HR departments start thinking of expanding their services to include “robotics resources”, too. Gartner predicted that by 2025, at least two of the top ten global retailers will have reshuffled their HR departments to accommodate robotic needs.
Pragmatics like procurement, maintenance and decommissioning are important, but there’s more to consider: robotics resources will be responsible for ensuring that the transition towards human-robot collaboration is smooth, and that employees don’t feel left behind.
On top of first-class communication, Universal Robots’ von Hollen also recommends deploying cobots as strategically as possible. A bottom-up approach is preferable, he says, so that staff can see for themselves how beneficial the technology can be.
“Take one cell and automate it,” von Hollen said. “And then, let others see what happens. We usually see that the person working in the automated cell gets faster and better, and then others start pushing for having access to the same technology.”
“That’s because we don’t make robotics to control humans. We make robotics to provide a tool that humans can use,” he added.
Rossetti makes a similar observation about the Makr Shakr: that bartenders often report that their job has improved as a result of the machine taking on the mundane tasks that they previously had to carry out themselves.
Rossetti is currently getting ready for the Makr Shakr’s next grand opening later this year: a 600 square-metre open space in a nearby location in Milan, operated by both robot and bartender. A few nights a week will see the human competing against the machine in a contest for the best cocktail.
Which one of the two is Rossetti placing his bets on? “The bartender, no doubt,” he answers without hesitating. “Because he is a bartender, and a good one, with that. Only he can know the taste of the cocktail, and how to make the final decision. He’ll make the cocktail much nicer.”