by Andy Bishop, Health and Safety Consultant

I had a long day yesterday; roadworks and traffic jams meant my schedule slipped a little.  I was reminded by my smart phone every time I was nearly late with an annoying little ‘ping’ and a notification on the dashboard but thanks to the wonders of the satnav and its route planning ability I made each appointment!  Every hour or so my watch vibrated violently against my wrist to tell me to move as I was starting to resemble a three toed sloth (in case you didn’t know a three toed sloth is a large hairy ape like creature that hangs upside down in trees and takes about three months to do anything!)  I typed a few emails and sent a few messages, each time my laptop or my phone guessed the correct recipient after just a few letters, it even stopped me from sending one email as I’d mentioned an attachment and subsequently forgot to attach it.

I listened to Chris Evans on Radio 2 discussing how the administrators and programmers behind Siri, the apple voice activated system, had starting programming it to only respond to a request that ‘asked politely’ as parents were blaming Siri for their children’s lack of manners! I mean, just what is the correct etiquette when conversing with a computer!

I eventually got in from work and after my car had parked itself, I wandered into the house and as I walked through the hall, a soothing electronic voice asked me if I would like to listen to some music as she/he  (I’m not sure how computers fit into the whole gender thing)  had prepared a play list for me based on my preferences and my recent listening history.

As the very well-chosen play list sparked in to action, I spoke to the lights and set the ‘ambience’ to my preferred level commensurate with my mood as identified by an app on my phone.  She who must be obeyed was running late so to while away the time I started to prepare some food. I took some meat from the freezer and chucked it into the microwave, which enquired as to my intentions then set about defrosting the meaty goodness as I busied myself asking a computerised voice for recipe suggestions (the multitude of recipe books were just too far away – and if I’m honest I’ve forgotten how they work!).  I began preparing the meal, receiving voice prompts and reminders at the key stages throughout the project (yes – cooking is a project that must be suitably managed throughout).

In case you hadn’t noticed, I really take advantage of the ‘internet of things.’  I do love a good gadget, I have literally got one for every application in my life, I talk to the lights in my house, my car virtually drives itself, I generally just have to be there.

It seems that I’m not the only one though. I watch the news regularly and every couple of weeks there seems to be a new robot that is threatening to take the place of people. I read through trade journals and publications to keep abreast of new innovations and the latest safety related invention.

It worries me slightly that so called ‘wearable technology’ and ‘AI systems’ are being introduced to protect people.  I have seen hard hats with sensors and haptic alarms that start buzzing when you enter a ‘danger zone’. I have seen Hi Visibility clothing that does the same but adds strips of highly visible LED lights when you wander too close to the edge of the giant hole in the ground.  I have even seen a system that you can attach to a high-speed circular saw that will sense when anything ‘fleshy’ gets near it and stop it in a very abrupt fashion. The video demonstration makes good use of a sausage to replicate the operator’s errant appendage.  It works, however, the catastrophic damage to the machine means that a whole new machine is required, still easier than replacing a severed hand though.

I spent some time working in the high hazard industry of explosives manufacture where we used robots to handle the highly volatile pellets as they moved around the production from process to process.  Every now and again, there would be a glitch and a hiccup in the system and the robot would go rogue and start dropping highly sensitive explosives around the place.  Part of my role when this occurred was to go into the room and make it safe for the engineers to come in and calm the robot down and show it the error of its ways by giving it a new programme to work with.

These robots were introduced to remove people from the danger areas and to increase efficiency and productivity, great results all around, especially for the extra six ‘robot babysitters’ that were employed as a result.

The reason I am worried about the onset of artificial intelligence and replacing humans with robots are twofold.  The first issue I can see is the growth in reliance on this technology to keep the work force safe. It’s all very well equipping all workers on site with a sensor or an alarm which warns them of the hole in the ground, or the heavy machinery in close proximity – but aside from buzzing like an angry bee – they don’t physically stop or prevent you from exposure to the danger. The second worry is the likely adoption of more and more absurd inventions like the ‘hi vis coat’ that lights up when its dark.  By the increasing use of these technologies we run the risk of forgetting the basics of harm prevention.

If you want some proof of this, observe anyone who normally drives an automatic when they jump into a car equipped with a manual gearbox, I guarantee that they will stall the engine at some point in the journey!

For advice on choosing robots or hi vis jackets with haptic alarms and LED strip lighting, I’m afraid you will have to look somewhere else.

If you want friendly, practical advice or training from a real flesh and blood experienced Health and Safety professional then come and see what HCS Safety have to offer.

Share this post on: