Ethical implications of warehouse automation

Etica in autom BT

When it comes to automation, we are inclined to think of predefined, programmed things. By definition, automation describes a wide range of technologies that allow robots to operate independently of constant/direct human intervention.

Today, automation is present in almost all areas of business, especially in manufacturing. In this respect, automated industrial robots are in high demand, being programmable and capable of performing a wide range of tasks, from assembly and packaging, picking and labelling, to pallet inspection or product testing. The uncertainty, however, lies in the possible impact this evolution of technology has on people. Here we can highlight the ethical aspect of automation and the important debates surrounding it.

Reflections on the ethics of automation tend to focus on the threats posed by technological advances that are capable of overtaking and replacing human labour, leading to mass unemployment. According to a CNBC poll, 27% of respondents believe new technologies will eliminate their jobs in the next 5 years. These concerns about robots replacing human labour have been discussed since the time of Aristotle and, according to British economist John Maynard Keynes, are known as “technological unemployment”. Innovation can indeed have a disruptive impact on jobs in the short term, but wise and ethically correct automation could lead to a much brighter and more productive future for humanity. This ambitious vision is based on two principles:

  • Humans must maintain a vital and central role in the workplace of the future, controlling and optimising the power of new technological solutions;
  • Automation, artificial intelligence and related technologies are only tools to improve and enrich people’s lives and livelihoods.

The forecast for 2035, according to Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne’s “The Future of Employment”, shows that some logistics jobs are at risk of being replaced by the following systems:

grafic etica 1

But the ultimate goal of automation is not to cause technological unemployment, but to encourage new forms of interaction between people and technology, with the aim of increasing the capacity and capabilities of human beings, creating new roles for them, with added value. While repetitive or physically demanding tasks that can have health consequences for employees are performed by robots, humans can focus on more meaningful tasks that enhance their creativity and cognitive capacity. The digitisation of warehouse operations thus opens up new career opportunities for warehouse workers eager to learn and grow.

Human labor is also not only necessary, but indispensable, when it comes to programming and supervising robots. Thus, it is important for organizations to take into account the complexity of the process of deploying robots in the labour market and to ensure that systems are functioning correctly and that, in the event of a failure, there is someone to keep the situation under control.

Traditionally, the actions of robots are attributed to the programmers, which ultimately means that they must take responsibility for everything the robot does. Another potential ethical issue is that as more and more automation solutions emerge that operate independently, organizations are prone to forget that the decisions made by robotic devices are reflections of the programming team (and not their own decisions), both right and wrong. So who is responsible if things go wrong?

sisteme automatizare

One of the essential skills of a warehouse employee in the digital age is the ability to adapt and learn efficiently and quickly how new automated systems work. Whether it’s a barcode scanner, a conveyor system, a sorting system or a Goods-to-Person solution, employees need to be familiar with the functions, features and benefits of each technology, and also be able to identify, resolve and communicate specific issues should they arise.

So, despite the increasing levels of automation, people will continue to be irreplaceable in their organizations. Indeed, it is the development of automation that will bring about one of the biggest changes in the role of employees: most operators will need retraining and upskilling to replace manual production or goods handling tasks with supervisory and control roles, and will have to work directly with industrial robots. All these changes will need to be carefully managed to ensure that all human and ethical factors are properly considered, for the dual benefit of supporting the welfare of the workforce as well as the development of technology and productivity of companies.

So automation is not a threat to workers in warehouses and production facilities, but a reliable ally that can help them do their jobs faster, safer and more efficiently. When implemented wisely and correctly, automation is an indispensable tool that can improve performance in your business and propel you to success in a world where technology is developing at a rapid pace.

Sources:

  • „The Future of Employement”; Frey , Carl Benedikt & Osborne, Michael; 2013; available here;
  • „A World with Robots: International Conference on Robot Ethics: ICRE 2015”; Ferreira,  Maria & Sequeira, Joao & Tokhi, Mohammad; published at Springer International Publishing, 2017
  • “These American workers are the most afraid of A.I. taking their jobs”; CNBC, Douglas, Jacob; 2019; available here;
  • “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”; Keynes, John Maynard; 1930; available here.