The lessons for health and safety from robots helping humans
Risk consultant Nick Bell assesses what lessons the health and safety community can learn from recent stories about robots helping humans.
Health and safety professionals can learn from the world of artificial intelligence. A new ‘rule’ has been suggested to prevent Terminators taking over the planet: “Humans Must Flourish”. This ‘rule’ emerged from a report into data management, with the idea taken up by the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh, who proposed it to replace Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics.
These laws require that a robot must:
- Not harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human being to be harmed
- Obey orders from humans unless they conflict with law number 1
- Protect its own existence as long as this does not conflict with laws 1 and 2.
Asimov’s rules start with the injunction “First, do no harm”. This phrase is associated with medical ethics but is used more widely. We must consider whether we will do more harm than good by performing surgery, altering an eco-system or wading into a conflict zone. ‘Do no harm’ also resonates closely with the health and safety concept of zero harm.
Promoting human flourishing goes far beyond preventing harm. It suggests that the systems we create should make lives better. Asimov’s rules might make robots safe but says nothing about their ultimate purpose. Promoting human flourishing offers an inspirational direction for creators of intelligent systems (and encapsulates the need not to create murder-bots).
What does flourishing mean? Seligman, and positive psychology more generally, suggests that we flourish when we meet our needs to have a sense of purpose, engagement, competence, control, pleasure etc. Seligman argues that psychology has wrongly focussed on mental illness and disease rather than what makes people resilient, healthy and happy.
The health and safety community is currently asking itself whether zero harm should be the ultimate goal. When applied to mental health, doing no harm involves the organisation giving people adequate time, training etc. to prevent them becoming ill. In contrast, to promote human flourishing the organisation might provide satisfying, fulfilling work. The impact of modern work is high on the agenda at the moment, and is subject to an ongoing government review, due to the growth of the gig economy and zero hour contracts.
As we well know, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 states that an employer shall “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees”. How far does ensuring go? First, do no harm. Clearly, we should be preventing injury and ill-health. However, if people are reasonably safe and healthy but unfulfilled and insecure, are we really ensuring their welfare?
When it comes to policies, ‘do no harm’ can read as “we are committed to not harming people (i.e. we are going to fulfil our basic duties in law)”. I am not sure this is inspirational or aspirational. It is rather like a mega-corporation proudly announcing “we will pay our taxes” then expecting a round of applause.
In contrast, a policy (and organisational culture) that is underpinned by a belief that humans must flourish might commit itself to helping staff to develop and play to their strengths, hearing their voice and allowing/trusting staff to shape the organisation of their jobs or workplace. Keeping people healthy and safe is just one aspect of helping them flourish.
The Care Act 2014 is a perfect example. The very first duty is to promote the individual’s well-being. Protecting people from neglect and abuse, while vitally important, comes further down the list of what it means to promote well-being.
Obviously, any sentiments expressed in policies or a statement of organisational values must be sincerely held and influence how the organisation actually operates. Otherwise, the words become marketing nonsense or a naïve, idealistic vision.
Do you prevent harm or help people flourish? I am convinced that this fundamentally influences our approach. I once provided some consultancy support at a power station and asked their training team why they put so much effort into making their health and safety training interactive, imaginative and engaging. They said “people choose to work here – they deserve a good experience”.
Sci-fi films warn us that when we take our desire to protect too far, humanity ends up imprisoned by robot overlords who decide it is the most logical way of protecting us from our own impulsive, destructive natures.
Safety differently is a product of positive psychology. It does not diagnose and pathologize unsafe acts, nor micro-manages/micro-measure the workforce. Instead, the focus is on recognising and building capabilities and letting go of some control.
If robots of the future will be programmed to help humans flourish, maybe humans should also have this ambition.
Health and safety professionals, who are some of the most humane humans I have met, could play an important part in that process.
Hasta la vista, baby.
Louise Hosking and Jimmy Quinn on IOSH Presidency
In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, IOSH President, Louise Hosking, and Immediate Past President, Jimmy Quinn, discuss overcoming the challenges of the last 12 months and look ahead to what’s in store for 2022. The conversation points include, equality, diversity and inclusion, mental health and support for veterans and the armed forces.
Click here to listen to this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast.