It seems that hardly a day goes by without another story about the advance of robotics technology.  The latest news is that Google subsidiary DeepMind has built an artificial intelligence system capable of beating the European champion at the complex Chinese strategy game, Go.  This was hailed as a landmark in thedevelopment of artificial intelligence, with one observer of the game describing it as “really chilling to watch”.  

At the same time, newspapers are filledwith ever more dire predictions of the number of jobs which will be overtaken byrobot technology.  A Deloitte report estimated that 60% of retail jobs in the UK will be undertaken by robots within 20 years.  If those predictions turn out to be correct, we can expect the workplace of the future to look very different.  But in fact robotics is already having a major impact on the world of work, with fascinating implications for employment law.

Researchers in Melbourne, Australia have created robots which conduct job interviews. Not only do they ask questions but they monitor the responses and the interviewees’ facial expressions to see if they are telling the truth and draw up an emotional profile of the interviewee to help determine whether they are suitable for the company.  It is not hardto see how this could translate into potential employment claims.  One could argue that this form of recruitmentdiscriminates against older workers, who may be less familiar with thetechnology and react less well to being interviewed by a robot.  The non‑verbal cues that the robot is designed to test are also heavily influenced by gender, age and background; again, this looks like fertile territory for discrimination claims.

There has already been a spate of harassment cases dealing with the fallout from colleagues making comments about each other on Facebook or Twitter.  If robots enter the workplace, how long before one “goes rogue” and is cited in a harassment claim?   Looking at possibilities which owe less of a debt to science-fiction, one can foresee that employees  might be able to programme a robot so as to harass or bully their colleagues, for which the employer would likely be liable.

Another interesting area is employee monitoring.  The use of devices which monitor desk-occupancy has already proved controversial in some UK companies.  The wider use of robots could enable a much wider range of data to be collected in relation to employee productivity and conduct, with huge data protection implications.

It may be too much of a stretch to imagine that robots themselves will one day have employment law rights.  However, it’s worth bearing in mind that human employees have only had employment rights for a relatively short space of time.  A Victorian industrialist would be horrified to discover the extent of our health and safety laws, for example.  So perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss this possibility too quickly.  Perhaps future generations will think about our poor, exploited robot workforce the same way that we now think about children cleaning chimneys.  

I’ll be looking forward to the first test case …