Rise of Robots Brings Host of Labor Law Questions

A new Littler report attempts to assess the impact of robotics on work force law

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How will the robotics revolution impact labor and employment law?

A just released report by Littler Mendelson, a firm specializing in such law, attempts to address problems that could creep up in 12 areas of labor law and discusses the potential regulatory and legislative stumbling blocks to implementing robotics and automation.

“Many of the labor and employment law issues are not intuitive,” said Gary Mathiason, co-chairman of Littler’s Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Automation Practice Group, at a Wednesday roundtable in Washington.

The report, “The Transformation of the Workplace Through Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Automation,” released by Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute, is preliminary. “We put this [report] out to legal scholars, industry experts and HR professionals to get their feedback,” Mathiason said.

In the financial advisory world, robo-advisors are taking the place of human professionals for some clients. An example of such an advisor is Wealthfront, which had no clients over 50 a year ago, though 10% of its clientele today is in that age group.

Mathiason noted that the preliminary report will form the basis of a more comprehensive report to be released in May.

The Think Leadership Roundtable held Wednesday is a starting point to “explore how workplace laws (many enacted decades ago) will likely be applied and then reinterpreted by courts and regulators,” Mathiason told ThinkAdvisor. “While attention has been directed to the effect of these technologies on jobs and the needed skills of the future work force, there are dozens of other legal issues that employers will face.”

The report looks at human displacement, union and non-union labor relations, anti-discrimination, wage and hour, health and safety, workers’ compensation, tort liability issues, privacy, trade secrets, eDiscovery, health care, and legislation and regulation.

The report cites the numerous indicators that show how robotics, which has varying definitions, is transforming the work force in many industries. It notes the 83% growth of iRobot stock in 2013 as reassurance of the robotics market’s potential. Also last year, Google announced that it would acquire eight robotics companies to form a new robotics division, the report notes.

The report cites research that says that by 2025, half of the jobs in the United States will be performed by “brilliant machines and intelligent systems.” States the Littler report: “Robotics is the next major innovation to transform the workplace, and will have as great — if not greater — impact on how employers operate than the Internet.”

The report notes the “human-like” robots that are being used for elder care, citing the Japanese government's estimation that the market for elder care robots will be valued at more than 400 billion yen ($4.09 billion) by 2035. For instance, a Japanese company has developed a “caring robot” to reduce the workload for nurses, while another innovation is a battery-operated suit that functions as a robotic exoskeleton to help workers lift patients.

In the recruiting world, all eyes are on a robot called Sophie developed by NEC that has been deployed and field tested and is programmed to not only ask and respond to questions, but also to measure an interviewee’s physiological responses. Mathiason noted that Sophie would be used in the “initial” step of an interview, with human interviews to follow. But Littler’s report notes that Sophie must be programmed “consistent with employment discrimination laws of the jurisdiction.”

In addressing where labor and employment law fits into the robotics revolution, the report cites the importance of creators and manufacturers of such technologies “to develop products that fall with the strictures of labor and employment laws.” Demonstrated compliance, the report states, “will be a competitive necessity for developers that wish to market their products to liability-conscious employers.”

As to the change in employment and labor laws that follow the robotic revolution, Littler notes in its report that “much of this change will come not from new laws, but from courts and regulatory agencies attempting to apply well-established labor laws to a work force and virtual workplaces that were unimaginable decades ago.”

But in educating the judicial bar, regulators and legislators on the “new workplace and practical realities” associated with robotics, Littler says that it will “recommend against new laws and regulations unless and until the need for change is dramatic.”

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