When Should We Use Robots in the Workplace?


Robots will drastically change how work gets done and who does it.

But this doesn’t mean humans will get replaced as workers. Robots’ greater impact will be enhancing human abilities rather than replacing them.

The key to knowing when robots can take on jobs instead of humans is to recognize when there is a clear advantage. There are areas where humans struggle but robots are perfectly suited to the task. Certain situations are too dangerous – even physically impossible – for humans to handle, and these are also an area where robots can step in. In this article, we’ll cover examples of times when it may be helpful for a robot to be put to task instead of a human.

1. Impossible Situations

Some situations are impossible for humans to participate in. Robots can go underwater, access small spaces, lift heavy objects, venture into the earth’s atmosphere, and even observe planets that are beyond our reach. Robots, though capable of performing a growing number of increasingly complex tasks, often lack the agility that would be required to perform in a rapidly changing or dynamic environment. Especially when compared to animals and insects, they are very rigid in performance.

The University of Washington AIRLAB created an insect scale robot that uses a Piezo-Actuated tail appendage. Departing from previous work to date that has focused exclusively on actuation by DC motor, the piezoelectric-tail system operates as a resonant system, exhibiting slowly-decaying oscillations. The end result? An insect-sized robot with the capability of completing dynamic maneuvers with more stability during flight.

2. Situations Involving Hazardous or Unpleasant Conditions

The human body is sensitive when it comes to extreme temperatures, handling heavy equipment, or being exposed to loud sounds, and this is an area where robots excel. One recent example of this is NASA’s VolcanoBot 2. To better understand the way magma flows in the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, NASA used the VolcanoBot 2 to measure the amount of magma coming from the ground of the volcano. Without this robot, researchers at NASA would never fully understand the full geological threat volcanoes propose because humans aren’t able to handle this kind of work.

3. Repetitive Tasks

The human brain is stimulated when given a variety of tasks to handle. When humans are forced to handle routine tasks, it is likely their boredom will lead to fatigue and eventual mistakes. That’s why stop and go traffic can be so stressful. It makes sense to use robots for this repetitive work and employ humans for their highest and best use.

Nothing is more repetitive — and susceptible to human error — than repetitive data entry. Ali Din realized this when he established dinCloud, a virtual robot provider. A TechRepublic article discussed how one of their robots, James, saves clients time and money by handling all data entry.

4. Logical and Linear Tasks

There are situations where humans need robots to fulfill a set of linear steps that does not deviate from the established structure of tasks. These events are likely to occur in high-stakes situations when not adhering to orders puts lives at risk. Times of war fall into this category. The United States Army is developing autonomous robots that can accurately follow the instructions of soldiers on the field without deviating from their commands.

5. Precision Tasks

Even when we use a ruler or measuring tape, it can be challenging for us to accomplish specific tasks with the accuracy or precise nature of a robot. For example, what if we need to sneeze in the middle of an eye surgery? We should take advantage of robots’ capabilities for precision when we can, especially when it comes to health and safety.

The milliDelta Robot has been entrusted with the task of completing eye surgeries. Each motor is housed in the base of the robot instead of in its joints, which gives it greater dexterity and allows it to move with greater accuracy. Also, the robot is only 15 millimeters long, which helps it reach locations that are difficult for humans access. The robot is so efficient that its movements are precise down to 5 micrometers.

6. Tasks that Take a Long Time

Robots are not limited by a physical body that makes them tired. As mentioned earlier, humans are susceptible to fatigue, sickness, and boredom—three elements that can affect their ability to complete tasks that take a lengthy amount of time.

An industry where humans have to remain alert for long periods of time is trucking. Humans have to drive for long hours to move supplies from one destination to the next. As a result, the American Trucking Association has estimated that 3.5 million truck drivers could be replaced by driverless trucks in the near future.

7. Advanced Perception

There are things in this universe that humans cannot see with the naked eye, whether it’s seeing into the depths of galaxies above or detecting precious minerals in the ground below.

The ocean floor is still mostly unexplored, and research teams at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts are using bots to detect anomalies in the ocean sediment. These bots are so-called “curious robots” that take photos of specific parts of the ocean and then follow up on their “curiosities” by visiting the same spot for further research.

Oceanographers used to rely on their own vision and photo-taking skills to explore the ocean floor. Today, robots’ advanced perception allows them to detect things the human eye never could, which has led to groundbreaking discoveries.

8. High-Volume Data Processing

Robots make it possible to access vast reserves of data on the spot for analysis and comparison. While robots currently need human input to make sense of data trends and explore potential patterns, engineers are working to give robots the tools to make their own meaningful conclusions with data.

Also, since humans can only hold small amounts of information in mind at one time due to their limited working memory, robots could potentially use more complex models to capture and analyze data in real-time.

For instance, they might be able to take thousands of different factors into account at once when making a decision. They would also excel at instantly recording the various indicators from the environment they used to make the decision. Any situation where large amounts of data must be captured and analyzed is one that’s ripe for automation.

The medical field is always a favorite place to start with emerging robotics technology. Researchers at Stanford University developed an AI algorithm that could diagnose skin cancer at the level of human dermatologists. The program was fed an image with raw pixels that was associated with a particular disease stage. The algorithm was able to process the image data and make a viable diagnosis.

9. Large Workforces Doing Similar Work

Any company whose process involves a large workforce could stand to reevaluate the use of robots for part of that work—especially when many workers are needed to do the same exact task.

As the count of human workers goes up, the various costs of payroll, training, and management increase steadily. When larger numbers of similar robot workers are employed, the cost per machine goes down because development costs are shared.

Changying Precision Technology Company in Dongguan City, China experienced this. The company replaced 90 percent of its factory workforce with robots, and they experienced a 250 percent increase in productivity and an 80 percent decrease in defects. The now 60 robot arms work across 10 production lines to take care of the repetitive tasks a much larger workforce was handling.

Wrap Up

Businesses that optimize collaborative intelligence between humans and machines will be the ones to unlock their full potential. This will require reimagining and restructuring many of their business processes to fit the skill sets of people and machines. Tomorrow’s market movers will embrace such a strategy.


Jeff Alexander

Chief Science Officer

Jeff is Fresh’s Chief Science Officer and an innovator with over 20 years of engineering experience. Prior to Fresh, Jeff founded SiTech Research Test and Development, a comprehensive product development and test systems solution provider whose clients included Philips, Universal Electronics, and Fortune 100 companies.

Jeff’s career spans nearly a decade at Microsoft where he helped develop successful products like the original Xbox and the Xbox Kinect; as well as stints as Principal Hardware Architect at Nokia, developing innovative IoT products and image sensors; and as a lead engineer at LaserMotive, where he played a primary role in the design of a laser targeting and delivery system which won an award from NASA.

He holds a BSEE from University of Alaska Fairbanks.