TU/e research project “Working ‘with’ or ‘against’ the machine? Optimising human-robot collaboration in logistic warehouses” funded by NWO-MVI

Can we collaborate with robots or will they take our place at work?

The Dutch Organisation for Scientific Research Platform on Responsible Innovation (NWO-MVI) is funding Dr. Sven Nyholm, Dr. Pascale Le Blanc and Dr. Sonja Rispens to conduct a research project on human-robot collaboration in logistic warehouses, with two post-doctoral researchers, Dr. Hannah Berkers and Dr. Jilles Smids, recently hired to join this project.

The fear of robots taking over our jobs
There is an apparent fear across different sectors that robots will replace people’s place in the workplace. Headlines such as “More than 70% of US fears robots taking over our lives, survey finds” (The Guardian, 2017), “Robots, jobs and the human fear of change” (Tech Crunch, 2016); and “Will robots destroy our livelihoods?” (BBC News 2015) illustrate this concern within society. Generally speaking, it is true that the furtherance of robotisation has an effect on job characteristics. To name a few examples: instead of building a car, we now mainly oversee the construction of cars by robots and machinery; instead of entering data, we now only need to make sense of the data; and instead of risking one’s life on a battlefield, we can now remotely control a drone from afar. These transformations raise a host of ethical questions such as ‘can we trust robots?’ or ‘who is morally responsible when a robot makes a mistake?’. One particular fear is that the continued advancements of robotisation implies the departure of any sense of meaning people have when working and the dissatisfaction of basic human needs in general. Changes at work have the potential to undermine employees’ motivation, well-being and performance. This fear and the effects robotisation has on work make resistance towards robots likely. But is resistance really necessary?

Academic research on robotisation
Ethicists and philosophers of technology are keenly studying the relationship between the meaning people often place in their work and the increasing robotisation and automation that society is undergoing. A related inquiry is how the further automation and robotisation of work may affect people’s feeling of control over and responsibility towards work. These relationships directly influence how people come to accept or reject the robotisation of work and employees’ well-being.

Robots in logistics warehouses
In order to tackle this fear and ‘guide’ the expected changes in the workplace that can affect employees, an interdisciplinary approach is necessary. Sven Nyholm says that “this topic is particularly interesting to approach from an interdisciplinary viewpoint as it is a development that clearly raises both ethical and psychological questions”. Moreover the domain of logistic warehouses is particularly relevant to address as the furtherance of robotisation here significantly affects the quality of work as well as workers’ competence profiles.

Finding ways to collaborate with robots
In this project, the aim is to understand how robotisation in logistics can be advanced whilst maintaining workers’ sense of meaning in work and general well-being, thereby preventing or undoing resilience towards robotisation. Sven Nyholm says: “People typically find work meaningful if they work within a well-functioning team or if they view their work as serving some larger purpose beyond themselves. Could human-robot collaborations be experienced as team-work? Would it be any kind of mistake to view a robot as a colleague? The thought of having a robot as a collaborator can seem a little weird. And yes, the increasingly robotized work environment is scary, but it is exciting at the same time. The further robotisation at work could give workers new important responsibilities and skills, which can in turn strengthen the feeling of doing meaningful work”.

Robots and people becoming colleagues

Research Question
The main research question of this project asks: ‘How can robotisation in logistic warehouses be optimally utilised and further developed in a way that does not conflict with human workers’ sense of work-related meaningfulness and well-being?’ Sven Nyholm, Pascale Le Blanc and Sonja Rispens hypothesise that ownership and understanding is necessary. Employees must retain a sense of control and responsibility when practising their profession. Moreover, employees must understand why robots are introduced into the workplace, how they function and that robots at work are not competition but partners.

Creating a Theoretical Framework and Practical Roadmap
In order to find out whether or not this hypothesis is valid, the project members will analyse the most influential theoretical frameworks from the fields of ethics and psychology on meaningfulness and well-being. They will further conduct empirical research through job analyses, interviews and questionnaires with employees working in robotised warehouses in three different organisations. The overall aim is twofold: to understand which social and/or human factors play a role and therefore need to be taken into account when integrating robotics into the workplace of warehouses, and to create a practical roadmap that illustrates these factors. When the project comes to an end, the results will be presented and explained to the participating organisations by means of an interactive seminar.

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