Such initiatives aren’t limited to private businesses; neither are the sensitivities. In southern Denmark, the regional government hired a chief robotics officer, Poul Martin Møller, to help integrate more robots into the public sector, largely as a money-saving measure. He decided that the Danish hospital system, which was under pressure to reduce costs, could benefit from robotic orderlies. There were few medical-oriented robots on the market, though, so Møller and his team took small, mobile robots with movable arms, designed for use in warehouses, and refashioned them, so that they could carry supplies to doctors and nurses. The machines worked well, scuttling through surgery wings and psych wards like helpful crabs, never complaining or taking cigarette breaks. But Møller wasn’t prepared for the reaction of the hospital staff, who recognized their mechanical colleagues as potential replacements, and tried to sabotage them. Fecal matter and urine were left in charging stations.
Since then, Møller has evangelized about “change management,” and the need to handle people carefully as new technology is introduced. “As a taxpayer, here we pay thirty-three, thirty-four dollars an hour for unskilled work, like orderlies,” he told me. “Robots cost, at most, around ninety-five cents an hour. If you do the math, you can have thirty-five robots for one human. So you might as well face reality and face facts. That means you have a bunch of orderlies who need jobs.” By way of redress, he proposes using the robot-derived savings, at least initially, to retrain the displaced humans for more sophisticated jobs that the robots can’t (yet) do.
In the United States, where automation in the workplace is no less politically fraught, corporate executives are reluctant to be quoted on the subject; when they are, their usual line is that robots aren’t replacing humans but simply helping to make their jobs less taxing. This is not entirely a misrepresentation. When I asked Dave Stinson and his colleagues at Steelcase about how automation had affected the assembly line, they said, for the most part, that it had made things easier. The factory was cleaner, less noisy, more productive. When something went wrong with the assembly, they could diagnose the problem swiftly, by consulting the data. Most workers welcomed being rotated through different positions, rather than doing the same thing for years at a time.