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Athena 
Peppes
Strategic Foresight Consultant and Speaker

  • LinkedIn
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Could AI-enabled robots close the gender-equality gap?

Women continue to do most unpaid care work.

 

The gender divide is evident everywhere, not least in the workplace. The gaps that exist in pay and career progression intersect with women’s participation in work, which complicates the picture.

Women work fewer hours as they balance work and care commitments. There is no country where men and women provide an equal share in terms of unpaid care work; globally, women contribute two to ten times more. In fact, women account for approximately 75% of total hours contributed in unpaid care work, according to the International Labour Organization.

But despite various gender equality initiatives by governments and corporations, progress remains slow. In today’s challenging economic environment, an emphasis on cost cutting dominates. Thus diversity initiatives can unfortunately end up in the ‘nice to have’, rather than then ‘must have’ list of budgeting priorities for senior executives.

Household robots might be the next employee perk and close the care gap.

Household robots might be the next employee perk and close the care gap.

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Are there any bright spots? Yes. There is I believe an interesting development underway that holds promise. That is the new focus by technology researchers on embedding Large Language Models (LLMs) into robotics.

The existing generation of robots are based on thorough programming, which makes them a perfect fit for the highly structured industrial and factory settings but less suitable for our less structured and unpredictable homes, shops, care settings and towns. This is one of the reasons that they remain rare.

But this is now changing as researchers are embedding AI into the new generation of robotics, which enables them to adapt and respond to a changing environment.

As noted in a recent article in the Scientific American, LLMs have what robots lack: access to knowledge about practically everything humans have ever written on the internet. In turn, robots have what LLMs lack: physical bodies that can interact with their surroundings, connecting words to reality. 

So my provocation to you, dear reader, is this: Could the future workplace include AI robots as a standard perk for employees, in a bid to help balance domestic responsibilities? Could policymakers that are struggling to fill places for nurses and social workers look to robots to fulfil those jobs? As the next generation of robots becomes more sophisticated, will we see them increasingly appear in restaurants, shops, in our hospitals and in our homes?

Technological and economic drivers could drive adoption.

The technological underpinnings are underway.

Boston Dynamics' newly-launched Atlas robot, showcases unprecedented flexibility and mobility. Figure AI, recently raised an impressive $675 million from leading AI entities like OpenAI, Nvidia, and Microsoft to develop general-purpose humanoid robots. And the recent Stanford AI Index report highlights the trend of rising robotics installations in the service sectors such as hospitality and logistics, though it also notes a lag in healthcare.

There are also strong economic incentives. As the cost of robots declines and wage pressures remain high there are added incentives for businesses and governments to adopt robots.

But our societies and legal structures might not be ready.

However, the expansion of AI-enabled robotics faces several hurdles.

One set of barriers are legal and cultural. Many countries have laws that restrict trading hours. For example, in Germany, supermarket chain Tegut had to stop its 40 fully automated mini shops from operating on Sundays, to comply with a court ruling in the state of Hesse. The impact on the company is significant, as Sunday accounted for up to 30% of their weekly sales.

Another barrier is training data availability. Unlike LLMs trained on existing internet data, robots require specific, hands-on training data to perform physical tasks, such as demonstrations of how washing machines and fridges are opened. This necessitates a new approach to data gathering and machine learning. The question is how many of us would feel comfortable letting a robot watch our every move, or that of our family members, as it trains itself to repeat our actions.

And last but not least: trust. This can vary across countries. In Asian countries like Singapore and Japan, robotics in restaurants, care homes and shops are more common and widely accepted. In Europe, they are more likely to appear as a marketing attraction. So we may see a patchwork of adoption based on cultural preferences about how much people trust such robots to take care of their housework, their elderly and youngest members of their family.

Questions to reflect on.

As a fellow Rolemodel Rebel, what can you do next, based on these insights?

Here are three questions for you to contemplate:

  1. Consider the potential impacts of AI-powered robotics in your sector—how could they transform your industry? As they become cheaper and better, you can consider the implications for the way you interact with your consumers and your people.

  2. Reflect on the balance between innovation and regulation: what policies could both support technological advancement and ensure public safety? Having robots, that could be hacked or manipulated, around some of our society’s most vulnerable populations, such as children, elderly and people with health conditions, requires us to pause and ensure that adoption is done in a responsible manner.

  3. Engage with technology developers or participate in forums to influence the future of AI robotics, ensuring it aligns with societal needs and values. Each and every one of us holds the power to influence the future in a direction that is aligned with our vision of how we want to leave the world for our children and the generations to come.

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