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Why is Everyone Afraid of Robots?

Mathieu Bélanger-Barrette
by Mathieu Bélanger-Barrette. Last updated on Feb 11, 2016 8:02 AM
Posted on Feb 11, 2016 7:00 AM. 4 min read time

What makes you think that a robot isn't safe? What are your biggest concerns about robots? Are you still doubting the place of robots in the industrial world? We, as a society, have always been reticent of change and new technology, particularly when it comes from robots, but why? Read a little more about the fear of change and robots. 

Fear of change


I have recently been listening to a debate about people that want to ban UBER, the taxi service, from cities because they fear losing jobs... WHAT THE HELL?? Okay so there are some legit arguments here; like that UBER drivers are not obligated to be out there looking for rides all the time, which can cause peaks and downtimes at different moments of the day; or that people can lose a couple of minutes by having to wait for a taxi instead of an UBER ride, which I totally understand. But some of the other arguments like: 'UBER can be used by rapists and people are not protected from that'... are you serious? This is simply the best example of how people’s fear of change gets out there in the wild and creates stupid arguments just to heighten the fear people have of new technology, which of course makes them avoid it. 

This is the exact same vibe I get when talking about robots. People are scared of new technology (not so new by the way) and find really weird arguments to heighten the fear feeling around robots. In fact, things like 'Robots will steal our jobs' or 'Robots will kill us all' make no common sense. In fact, as far as I know the major part of small and medium enterprises that are implementing robots in their companies have seen a growth of their production and a stable or increasing number of employees working in their shops. Second, you should know that if you are following the different standards and generate a legitimate risk assessment, a robot is probably safer than most other industrial machines. Actually, as we look at different accident reports about robots, the main cause of injuries or fatal accidents was caused by human error. So what's is scarier... an inactive robot on an e-stop or a colleague being clueless about what the robot’s working space entails...

These kinds of statements make me think about a story a mailman told me a couple of years back. He said that the Internet would cause him to lose his job, because nobody would send messages or letters to each other using the good old mailbox. Perhaps, he was right on this point, however, he didn't realize that a couple of years later, e-commerce would be so huge. Mailing services are now used at a higher rate and not to carry letters, but to carry boxes (which are pretty expensive to ship). So there was probably an actual gap in time where fewer people were sending letters before the time where e-commerce became a huge thing. At a certain point, we thought it was the end of the long history of the mailman... but actually they came out stronger than ever. What I am trying to say is that we are sometimes afraid of new technologies because we think that they will destroy the reality as we know it, but in fact new technologies simply change it. The same is true about robots, now the technology is still marginal for most SME's, but companies are introducing them more and more; and the price of robot is going down and their abilities are increasing; so that finally we will reach a point when we will ask ourselves : 'What were we doing before robots?'

Robot is a short word... and what does it mean really?


As soon as I start talking robots to a group of friends, everybody thinks R2-D2 or other fantasy robots. In fact, most robots today are really not the sci-fi pieces of metal that generally comes to mind. A robot is really an electro-mechanical device that helps humans achieve tasks that are: Dirty, Dull and Dangerous. And we all have examples of machines that are doing boring tasks for us that makes our life easier. If we simply think about robotic vacuum cleaners, nobody complains about not doing the vacuuming task on Sunday morning. It is pretty much the same thing in the industrial context. The jobs that are Dirty, Dull and Dangerous are better done automatically, so people can spend more time doing what they are good at: dexterous tasks and problem solving. Robots are only there to execute what they were programmed to do, there is still no real all around AI and humanoid robots are barely able to open doors, so you still can sleep soundly knowing it will be some time before a robot will come and steal your job, drive your car or make off with your partner. 

Finally, I am not raging against people that don't want change, in fact, we all have this little part of us that feels comfortable in our old slippers (direct translation from French, always thought that was a funny one). In fact, we are all a little discombobulated when a new co-worker comes into our workspace or when a new automatic method is used to do what you were doing manually. What I am trying to say here, is that we (as a society) need to pass over this 'being afraid' firewall and we need to embrace these new technologies (robots, UBER, driverless cars, drones, etc.), so we can move on to enhancing our lives. We have deeper societal problems to solve than worrying about tech-trends... 

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Mathieu Bélanger-Barrette
Mathieu is a production engineer at Robotiq, where he constantly strives to optimize the production line for Robotiq Grippers. He enjoys discovering new robotic applications and sharing what he learns on Robotiq's blog.
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