Are Robots going to remake the workplace? Not until they fix their image problem.

Are Robots going to remake the workplace? Not until they fix their image problem.

We are on the verge of a robotic revolution. The falling price of hardware combined with the proliferation of powerful open source software is making robotics accessible for everyday use. This was the premise of last week’s Xconomy Robots Remake the Workplace forum. One of the panelists at the forum went so far as to say that we should get ready to have our Starbucks delivered by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The panelist was joking, but this might not be far off from reality.

Robots will transform the economy in ways we have not even begun to imagine. In one of the key note presentations, Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics and former editor-in-chief of Wired, told the audience that the largest opportunity for his UAVs is, by far, in agriculture. Not police, military or surveillance, but farming. Harvest Automation was another company at the forum designing robots for use in agriculture. Other interesting applications for robotics on display included renewable energy with QBotix, delivery automation demonstrated by Aethon, healthcare with InTouch Health and remote presence with companies like Revolve and Double Robotics.

On the heels of the personal computer revolution, robots are about to cause another tectonic shift on our society, but not everyone is excited about it. Robots have a major image problem. The Xconomy forum was part of National Robotics Week, educating and advocating for robotics in the U.S. This was not the only national grassroots movement taking place last week to educated citizens about robots.  Simultaneously, the Network for Stopping Drone Spying and Warfare was holding its April Days of Action against drones.

The image problem for robots is twofold. First, many are concerned that robots will cause mass unemployment, leaving workers without jobs. This topic was one of the main discussion points during the forum. The second issue is spawned by the military’s high profile use of UAVs, which has left many concerned that robots in the U.S. will lead to armed, omnipresent government drones tracking our every move.

Unfortunately, perception is reality. The industry will never reach its full potential as long as these two concerns remain at the forefront of the discussion. This negative image is already having an impact on the industry, as a number of states recently passed legislation to limit UAV use. The industry needs to invest significantly in remaking and protecting its image. It is going to be an uphill battle to build trust with the public, which we at Edelman know is hard won and very easily lost. Companies will need to offer continued proactive and transparent communication to better inform the public of the positive impact robotics are making on our society.

Photo credit: Technology Review