A Different Voice: Care Ethics and the Future of Work

by Madelaine Ley/

Madelaine Ley

The next wave of robots are dynamic, lightweight, and adaptable (Gilchrist, 2016). Instead of being designed to avoid contact with workers or to stop immediately when contact is made, these robots are designed to move among human workers, either taking over certain tasks in the division of labour and/or working in side-by-side collaboration (Bendel, 2018). While companies and robotics researchers envision a future where these robots help alleviate the burden of work (Petro, 2020), employee reports from robotized warehouses and stores reveal an increased injury and stress (Drury, 2019; Guendelsberger, 2019; Harwell, 2019). This disconnect shows an urgent need to incorporate worker wellbeing into the design and deployment of the robots used in work spaces. While research agendas are eager to prioritize values of wellbeing, justice and dignity, there is not yet a clear way to do so.

I argue that adopting a care ethics framework in the design, evaluation and deployment of robots in workplaces will promote worker wellbeing for three reasons: one, care ethics’ insistence on the relationality of wellbeing lends itself to stakeholder and systems thinking required to understand the impact of robots on a workplace; two, care ethics prioritizes materiality and emotionality of wellbeing that is often overlooked but, I argue, is crucial to understanding and promoting wellbeing at work with robots; and three, care ethics’ commitment to practical action enables real-world change and demands structures of accountability.