“We’ve never felt so robotic”: A philosophical account of workers adapting to robots

“We’ve never felt so robotic”: A philosophical account of workers adapting to robots

Madelaine Ley PhD Candidate TU Delft, Ethics/Philosophy of Technology Proposal for Reshaping Work, Humanities Section 

“We’ve never felt so robotic”: A philosophical account of workers adapting to robots 

Much of the current discourse surrounding the ethical impacts of AI and automation of labor focuses on the potential loss of jobs (Danaher, 2019, Frey & Osborne 2013) and inequalities in work (Brynjolfsson & McAfee 2018, Went et al. 2015). While important, this narrow focus often considers a distant future while overlooking a host of current ethical issues. The purpose of this paper is to explore an unexamined ethical aspect of human-robot co-working environments: the present day phenomenon of employees adapting their behavior and working habits when alongside a robot. 

Recent advances in Machine Learning (ML) make it possible for a robot to safely navigate environments where humans move unpredictably. Building on these developments, retailers are in various stages of researching the integration of robotics and automation into manufacturing in both warehouses and stores. This paper shifts focus from a future where robots scan and stock shelves without human interaction and draws attention to the effects of robots and human workers completing similar tasks together in shared spaces. Two main examples are discussed: Amazon using robots in warehouses and Walmart’s recent use of robots to scan prices in stores. In both of these cases, there is an observed consequence of employees adapting their behaviour to become efficient and consistant to the extreme— in other words, more robotic and machine-like. For example, after the introduction of “Freddy”, the robot in Walmart stores, workers report the feeling that the company does not value their work and that they have “never felt more robotic” (Harwell, 2019). Such empirical accounts point to a deeper social issue of working with robots, that of a change in human behavior to emulate the robot. 

In an effort to better understand the phenomenon of workers becoming “more robotic”, this paper provides for a philosophical examination of the psychological concept of self- dehumanization, applies it to current movements towards automation in retail, and reflects on its ethical implications. In the psychological literature, self-dehumanization refers to the perception of being “less human” (Yang et al. 2015). Generally, the sense of being “less human” is in reference to other humans, especially “powerful people”, and results in a feeling of powerlessness. This paper examines who the powerful people may be in reference to store or warehouse employees, namely the managers or people who have job security, but also introduces robots into the mix— where robots may not be more human, but may be seen as having more power. 

To deepen the understanding of this phenomenon, I draw on gender studies, which similarly uses concepts to describe the experience of women or marginalized people objectifying themselves in response to pressures of the dominant culture (Young 1990). The value of drawing on theory from gender studies is that it calls us to recognize the 

larger structural aspects that may lead to a change in worker’s behaviour, rather than questioning the need to become more like machines. 

Not only do studies show that people experiencing self-dehumanization are more likely to engage in troublesome behavior (Bastain 2013, Kouchaci 2018), but also this misplaced sense of self in the workplace infringes upon worker’s dignity. As we consider the future of work we must engage with the ethical issues in the present transition periods, when employees work alongside robots. The benefits in uncovering and studying such issues is that it enables the proactive integration of ethics into the resulting robot prototypes. With an understanding that ethics is not an afterthought but a relevant consideration for the early stages of development, this paper will point to possible ways in which the possibility of self-dehumanization can be mitigated and/or minimized, for example through technical solutions (e.g. appearance and ‘behaviour’ of the robot) or procedural solutions (e.g. careful explanation and co-creation of the robot prior to its implementation in context). Only by flagging such issues now, and by actively working to incorporate solutions in an iterative manner, can we achieve responsible human-robot co-working situations in the present and future. 


Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Vancouver, B.C.: Langara College, 2018. 

Danaher, John. Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. 

Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2013). The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? OMS Working Papers, September 18. http://www.futuretech.ox.ac.uk/sites/futuretech. ox.ac.uk/files/The_Future_of_Employment_ OMS_Working_Paper_0.pdf; short URL: http://v. gd/iViQ0L 

Harwell, Drew. “As Walmart Turns to Robots, It’s the Human Workers Who Feel like Machines.” Washington Post, June 6, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/06/06/walmart-turns-robots-its- human-workers-who-feel-like-machines/. 

Kouchaki, Maryam, Kyle S. H. Dobson, Adam Waytz, and Nour S. Kteily. “The Link Between Self-Dehumanization and Immoral Behavior.” Psychological Science 29, no. 8 (2018): 1234–46. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618760784. 

Yang, Wenqi, Shenghua Jin, Surina He, Qian Fan, and Yijie Zhu. “The Impact of Power on Humanity: Self-Dehumanization in Powerlessness.” Plos One 10, no. 5 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0125721.