The Executive View: When a Robot Can’t Hold Down a Job

From a company leader’s perspective, the cost savings and efficiency of using robots can be mighty tempting. But as a recent Wall Street Journal article revealed, robots can also cause headaches, and even put a company’s reputation at risk.

By Dana Wilkie October 18, 2021
The Executive View: When a Robot Can’t Hold Down a Job

​They're cheaper and perhaps less trouble than real human beings. They don't require benefits, raises, bonuses, nor hand-holding. They don't get tired, don't take sick days or vacation time, and don't talk back.

Because they're robots.

Companies now use robots for a variety of tasks. They conduct research. Move heavy items. Assemble parts in a manufacturing line. They can paint. And they can handle acids or hot materials that might be dangerous for humans.

From a company leader's perspective, the cost savings and efficiency of using robots can be mighty tempting.

But as a recent Wall Street Journal article revealed, robots can also cause headaches, and even put a company's reputation at risk.

Are ‘Humanoid’ Robots Ready for Prime Time?

The Journal article chronicled the travails of "Pepper," a humanoid robot made by SoftBank Group Corp., that "keeps getting fired from his jobs." For instance, when one company hired Pepper to read scripture at funerals, Pepper kept breaking down during practice runs. "What if it refused to operate in the middle of a ceremony?" funeral-business manager Osamu Funaki told the Journal. "It would be such a disaster."

When Pepper was hired to lead singing and exercises for elderly people at a Tokyo-area nursing home, the robot's "repertoire of exercise moves was limited and, owing to mechanical errors, it sometimes took unplanned breaks in the middle of its shift."

That less-than-enthusiastic news is countered by this report from the Harvard Business Review. While some research indicates that robots will soon steal many of our jobs away in short order, HBR points out that even more roles will open as a result of this shift—97 million to be exact. These are the "jobs of the future," HBR reports, and they are actually better opportunities, specifically for early-career professionals.

Can You Trust a Robot More Than a Manager?

Because of performance problems like those Pepper had, executives thinking about investing in humanoid robots for the workplace may want to take a second look, reports SHRM Online

On the other hand, there appears to be an upside to using robots at work—although perhaps not one that executives expected. One study recently found that 64 percent of employees trust a workplace robot more than they do their own managers. Additionally, about half of employees "have turned to a robot instead of their manager for advice," according to the report.

Moreover, research indicates that humanoids are not taking over for employees on the job and putting them out of work. In fact, the evidence points in the opposite direction.

So where do robots really stand with company decision makers? SHRM Online explores that question.

How Do You Onboard a Robot?

The number of software robots entering the workforce was expected to increase by 50 percent between 2020 and 2021, saving companies perhaps trillions of dollars.

"It won't be unusual to see organizations give software robots to every employee to augment their day-to-day activities," reports ChiefExecutive.net.

But, according to the site, that prediction comes with a caveat: "To completely realize the return on investment, we need to onboard digital workers appropriately and keep a close eye on their performance to ensure they are being used to their full potential."

That includes asking questions such as: Has the company carefully considered if the robot is suited to the task? Do the robot's duties require human intervention, and if so, how much intervention? Is the company prepared to pay for that human training? Is the robot's job unnecessarily duplicating the work a human is already performing, and if so, how will company leaders know? Does the company know how to monitor and correct a robot's performance—in the same way they might review a regular employee's performance?

ChiefExecutive.net explores ways to make sure digital, non-human workers are skilled for their jobs.

Bots for Car Manufacturers

In the future, says Elon Musk, "physical work will be a choice."

That, notes the CEO of Tesla, is because robots are taking on more and more manual labor tasks in the workplace.

His prediction came this past summer during Tesla's Artificial Intelligence event, where Musk revealed that the carmaker will be branching out into humanoid robots.

The "Tesla Bot" is a 1.7-meter, 56-kilogram robot with a screen "face" that will present information. It helps the vehicle analyze its surroundings using cameras and decide what it needs to do when it encounters obstacles by identifying and labeling different routes and images.

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