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Workplace Trends: The Ethics of Dealing With Robots At Work

How do you want robots to treat you at work?

I'll bet you haven't given much thought to this question, but the fine folks at the British Standards Institution have done it for you. In fact, BSI has just issued an official ethics guidance regarding human-robot interaction!

The rest of us were simply worried about robots taking all our jobs, but there's another, emerging layer to the worldwide robotic workplace invasion and here it is:

What are you gonna do the first time a robot pisses you off, or slights you in some way, at work or anywhere else? What if, for example, your robot co-worker listens to "Mr. Roboto" on repeat play all day long?** Yeah, now what?

We must not be that far away from workplace robots becoming Passive Aggressive Patty v2.0 and Know-It-All Andy v3.0, because we need guidance! Hitachi is already rolling out artificially intelligent managers and Betty the robotic office manager is busy spying on us at work. So it's only a matter of time before we might encounter the metal ones in a staff meeting.

By the way, the British Standards Institution is the group that sets product and service technical standards and certifications in the United Kingdom. So, these are smartypants kind of people who needed some guideline inspiration. Cue the famed sci-fi author Isaac Asimov!

Asimov came up with The Three Laws of Robotics, which, I am told, were a plot point in his famous 1950 book, I Robot. I'll let a great little article in Digital Trends explain Asimov's three laws:

The laws state that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; that a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and that a robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

So robots may not hurt us. That's good. But what if you work with robots that are growing ever more perceptive, intelligent and vocally annoying by the day just like a real, human co-worker? There isn't enough AI to put up with this BS, quite frankly.

Thankfully, BSI tries to address the emerging questions we humans might have about our robotic counterparts. For starters, we as human employees should be able to know who programmed Know-It-All Andy in the first place, since we have to work with him all day. Seems fair. It would be nice to know who manages Andy as well, should we find ourselves having a "human" resources issue with Andy.

A copy of the guidelines can be purchased (see story link). In the meantime, let's hope our technology futurists are devising scenarios for dealing with the robot co-worker who notices when we're five minutes late to work.

By the way, here are five ethical questions I have regarding robots in the workplace:

1. Is it unethical to "forget" to plug in our co-worker at the end of the day?

2. Is it okay not to invite our robot co-workers to the cake party in the break room, since robots can't eat cake?

3. Can it offensive to show robots videos of Galaxy Note 7s?

4. Is it wrong to "jokingly" use quotes from The Terminator in workplace conversation?

5. Can we human employees send our robot co-workers to find something in the office that doesn't exist (e.g., go get the blue stapler when they're all red), just to get them out of our hair?

So little time, so many questions! In a pinch, we can apply The Golden Rule by treating our robotic co-workers the way we would like them to treat us. We can think of additional questions to ask while we await the robot co-worker that hums Top 40 pop songs all day long.

** Any similarities to recent, real life workplace circumstances is completely unintentional.


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