The fear that technology would replace people has been around since the Industrial Revolution, but recent advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning are intensifying concerns that robots could cause mass unemployment and an erosion of human rights.

Experts on technology and innovation say there is a more positive way to look at an automated future, if we build a coherent robot ethics.

“Robots and humans should cooperate,” Alexander Stubb, a vice president at the European Investment Bank and former prime minister of Finland, said at a December panel discussion in Brussels. “Instead of robots, let’s speak of ‘cobots’.”

A cobot is a robot designed to interact with humans in a shared workspace, compared with other robots intended to operate autonomously.

Indeed, robots aren’t the problem. Rather it might be that we misunderstand their potential role.

“We see robots as having intentions, that they are plotting to take away the best jobs, but this is not the case,” said Aimee van Wynsberghe, a professor in ethics and technology in the Netherlands and a specialist in responsible robotics.

Wynsberghe said leaders in business and the public sector should address the many ethical and societal issues arising from the rapid emergence of robot applications.

Robots and technology should not be feared as long as humans make the decisions on whether robots should be involved in areas such as medicine, teaching or military actions.

“Robots should never be making life-and-death decisions,” Wynsberghe added. “Robots should not be a doctor, should never be a soldier. They should not be a teacher."

Innovation forum in Brussels

The panel debate on the future of work and robots was part of a full day of discussions and speeches held for the first FT-EIB Global Investment Forum in Brussels. The event, sponsored by the EU bank and the Financial Times, brought together public and private leaders from around the globe to discuss how to make technology and innovation more inclusive — in other words, how to make innovation work for broader segments of society.

Ann Mettler, head of the European Political Strategy Centre with the European Commission, said her fear is not jobs lost because of technology, but inadequate skills.

“The key challenge is to prepare people for jobs that don’t exist and the skills that we don’t yet know we need,” Mettler said, adding that employment rates are rising in Europe as technology creates new job opportunities.

Sharan Burrow, the head of the International Trade Union Confederation, the world’s largest trade union, told the audience that her group is not worried about advances in technology, as long as there are limits. Like van Wynsberghe, she urged that humans remain at the centre of industrial processes.

“There should be some boundaries to what type of technology we will accept,” Burrow said. “Robots should not replace human decision-making. That would be foolish for humanity to accept.”

Robots you can wear

Some panellists said one device that many people should be able to accept is a so-called exoskeleton. In this context, an exoskeleton is a wearable machine that allows for humans to move with increased strength and endurance, and less risk of injury.

Panellists called for “a new ethical code” on technology to be formulated by a diverse group of people of different ages and backgrounds who would discuss how computer code is written and debate at the design state what impact robots will have on jobs and society. That would be better than waiting until after the technology is developed to confront such questions.

“Thought leaders must address the many ethical, legal, and societal issues currently arising from the rapid emergence of robot applications,” said Wynsberghe, the technology ethics expert. “We need to educate the public on the latest robotic innovations and enable open dialogue about the future of robots in our society.”