Robotics in the Workplace

Helping Hands?

Robotics will forever change the landscape of the U.S. workplace. That may create new liability concerns and eliminate others.
By: | October 15, 2014 • 10 min read

It’s probably way too soon to start dreaming up insurance products that will respond to the risk that robots are going to rise up and annihilate humankind. And good luck finding the market capacity for it anyway.

However, robots and robotics are fast becoming a fixture of our reality, and the industry is poised for rapid expansion.

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Robots, in some form or another, have been present in the manufacturing sector since 1962, when a New Jersey General Motors factory began using a robot to do spot welding and extract die castings. By the ’70s, increasingly sophisticated machines, operated by minicomputers, were being widely used for small parts assembly.

Robotics have long since moved away from the assembly line. Robots are present everywhere from warehouses to hospitals, from farms to laboratories, and from the military to mines and more.

One of the latest robotic forays into the workplace is at the Aloft hotel in Cupertino, Calif., where “The Botlr” — a service robot that looks like a distant cousin of R2-D2 — is being used to make small deliveries to guests’ rooms. Robots may soon be flipping your burgers or picking the grapes that make your favorite wine.

Video: The Botlr, a robotic bellhop built for Aloft Hotels, delivers an item to a guest in his room.

But the application of robotics is going ever deeper.

The development of robots connected to the Internet, big data, the cloud and advanced computing technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms are bringing a new class of robots into the workplace — those that can sense, think and act based on specific data and sensory input, and make routine decisions.

In June, the Associated Press began experimenting with having machines write short business stories. The news organization said that eventually, the majority of its U.S. corporate earnings stories would be produced using automation. (As of press time, Risk & Insurance® is not yet employing robotic journalists.)

There are obvious positives to the growth of robotics in the workplace. It makes sense to give robots the high-turnover jobs that are mind-numbingly rote, as well as those jobs and tasks considered extremely dangerous.

But the change that is coming may be far more profound. Garry Mathiason, co-chair of the Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Automation practice group at Littler Mendelson in San Francisco, cited a 2013 study published by the Oxford Martin School, examining automation potential across the U.S. labor market.

According to the study, said Mathiason, “47 percent of jobs currently done by people in the United States will be done by machines and software within one to two decades. That doesn’t mean there’s going to be 50 percent unemployment; it does mean there’s going to be that much change taking place.”

(For the record, the Oxford Martin study said that insurance underwriters are in the highest risk category for being taken over by automation, just ahead of claims and policy processing personnel, claims adjusters, examiners and investigators.)

“2010 was a turning point in terms of the acceleration of the technology and its implications,” said Mathiason. “There is a change taking place that will be the equivalent of the Internet in terms of what it will do to the workplace.”

Video: At the fulfillment center of North Reading, Mass.-based Kiva Systems, 100 robots work alongside 300 fulfillment associates.

Pointing Fingers

So far though, companies that employ robots see the importance of having human checks and balances on the robots’ work. Many companies are actually increasing staffing levels to support their robotic equipment.

That raises concerns about whether employees are at increased risk of harm by robotic equipment, or may inadvertently interfere with safe robotic operations. A fair number of workplace fatalities related to robotics have occurred in the last decade or two.

As it stands, employers are covered by existing workers’ comp statutes if a robot were to cause a workplace injury or fatality, the same as they would be in the event of an injury or death caused by any other piece of equipment.

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The same would not be true, however, if a robot were to injure a customer, a vendor or any other visitor to a facility. In those cases, who can expect to face a lawsuit? The answer, for now, is: It depends.

Liability issues get sketchy when you factor in the element of closed versus open robotics.

In a closed robotics system, a robot is designed and manufactured for one specific purpose. (iRobot’s Roomba, for instance, is a vacuum — period — no matter how many YouTubers use it as an amusement park ride for their cats.)

But with an open robotic system, independent developers would be able to create programs, or apps, to allow the system to accomplish different user-defined tasks, adding more potential culprits in the event of a claim.

“This is going to be a big issue,” said Stephen Wu, an attorney who is of counsel to Silicon Valley Law Group based in San Jose, Calif.

“[In the event of a robot-related accident], I’m going to be doing an investigation and using experts to determine the root cause. Was it my own environment? Was it the hardware manufacturer? Was it the firmware manufacturer? Was it the application software? Was it the operating system manufacturer? Or was it some subcomponents thereof? Or else … was it a data service provider [such as one providing mapping data]?”

These questions will grow still more complicated with the growth of adaptive technology — meaning when robots make decisions on their own based on the data and sensory input they receive.

“Increasingly, adaptive intelligence is being built in where the robot is going to be changing what it does based on external stimuli,” said Drew Haaser, U.S. technology practice leader for Marsh.

“Let’s say it’s putting welds on an auto and it’s been programmed to sense the properties of the materials it’s welding and adapt … . If it makes the wrong decision — what are going to be the legal implications to that?”

That question reaches a whole other level when the consequence is a loss of life.

“What if you have a robot that is … facing the decision to either run over your daughter or hit a school bus full of kids, what is the right thing to do in that situation?” asked David Beyer, managing member of Digital Risk Resources.

“I think that it’s a very complex issue. … They try to think through a lot of these situational risks but you can’t predict all the risks all the time.”

“I think what we’re going to see is that all parties are going to be drawn into these lawsuits. They’re all going to have their feet put to the fire and they’re all going to point at each other. Unfortunately, a jury is going to have to decide these things.” — David Beyer, managing member, Digital Risk Resources

It’s crucial, said Guy Fraker, that we remember robotics is not synonymous with infallible.

“You can say, ‘We can fix that with an algorithm.’ But can you program for that kind of variability in advance? No,” said Fraker, former director of business trends and foresight for State Farm and co-founder and CEO of consultancy Autonomous Stuff.

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“We’re learning new things about the technology every day.”

“These are not dumb devices anymore,” said Haaser, “and when they make mistakes in how they interpret stimuli, is it a professional liability error in the design of the product or in the software as opposed to a straightforward bodily injury/property damage claim?”

As more businesses incorporate adaptive technology into the workplace and robotics follow cues based on what they’re learning in their environments, the more that risk management will be expected to have thought through all of the implications of how the robot or robotic systems might respond.

Eventually, there will be cases where robots make “correct” decisions that result in tragic outcomes.

Several experts cited the example of a driverless car faced with a choice of hitting a tractor trailer or hitting an occupied baby stroller. Most assume that the car would attempt to minimize damage by hitting the stroller.

In a case like that, “Was it a mistake? Well, no,” said Haaser.

“Was it what a human with a duty to care would have done? No! And how will the courts treat that? Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of questions and not a whole lot of answers yet as to how the courts will treat that.”

“I think what we’re going to see,” said Beyer, “is that all parties are going to be drawn into these lawsuits.

“They’re all going to have their feet put to the fire and they’re all going to point at each other. Unfortunately, a jury is going to have to decide these things.”

Human Augmentation

The extremely good robotics news is that a great many of the developments coming out of the industry have the potential to decrease employer exposure rather than increase it.

In particular, advances in exoskeleton technology are moving to the forefront, even gaining a global stage during the 2014 World Cup, when a young paraplegic man made the first official kick of the event, wearing a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton.

Video: Juliano Pinto, 29-year-old paraplegic man, successfully made the first kick of the 2014 World Cup in Sao Paulo, wearing a full body robotic suit.

In South Korea last year, employees of Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering helped test a prototype of a full-body exoskeleton that will enable them to lift large hunks of metal, pipes and other objects without excess exertion or risk of strain or injury.

“In basic safety and loss control, the first line of defense is to engineer the risk out; robotics is one of the purest forms of ‘engineering out’ a risk,” said Bill Spiers, vice president and risk consulting manager, Lockton Cos.

Bill Spiers, vice president and risk consulting manager, Lockton Cos.

Bill Spiers, vice president and risk consulting manager, Lockton Cos.

“You have eliminated the human interaction around a task that’s going to create soft tissue strains that are very costly.”

Industry leaders such as Ekso Bionics and Cyberdyne are actively producing exoskeletons that have a broad range of applications. Robotic suits could dramatically reduce injury risk for workers with physically intensive jobs, potentially enhancing productivity at the same time.

“Wearable technology has the potential for ameliorating some [health and safety] concerns,” said Littler Mendelson’s Mathiason. “You can see it someday becoming as common as safety shoes.”

Mathiason said this may eventually be of equal importance as applied to Americans with Disabilities Act accommodation issues.

“You have people who couldn’t perform the essential functions of the job. Then seven million paraplegics can suddenly walk and do things nobody thought they would ever do again,” he said.

For workers who’ve already suffered temporary or permanent disabling injuries, exoskeletons could eventually open the doors for new means to keep injured workers on the job. Even severely disabled employees could potentially be returned to productive and essential work, increasing quality of life for injured workers while saving employers millions in partial and total disability payments.

“You have people who couldn’t perform the essential functions of the job. Then seven million paraplegics can suddenly walk and do things nobody thought they would ever do again.” — Garry Mathiason, co-chair of the Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Automation practice group, Littler Mendelson

Currently, 330 of Cyberdyne’s HAL-5 full-body exoskeletons have been leased to hospitals across Japan, where they assist patients with muscle weakness or disabilities due to stroke and spinal cord injuries. In some industries, this area of robotics could virtually eliminate obstacles to accommodating injured or disabled workers.

Due Diligence

As companies make critical decisions about incorporating robotics into their operations, it’s important to bring risk management into the loop early on.

While companies increasingly transition processes to robotics for the sake of cost savings, said Haaser, “the challenge for the risk manager will be to see that some of those savings are being reinvested back into risk management.”

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But the most urgent piece is getting risk management involved in decisions about capital expenditures like robotics from the get-go.

John Abbott, an account executive at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., said there are a host of questions that risk managers need to think through in advance.

“Are you going to be using it to do something that’s never been done before? Do you want to go into an area where there’s a potential environmental issue that may impair the robot’s performance? Robots are mechanical and electrical systems — any robotic system is prone to wear and tear and failure to some degree.”

Wu of the Silicon Valley Law Group added that due diligence is of utmost importance when selecting vendors for robotic system components, including whether there are any kinds of certifications that apply to the machines.

“Is there a UL-type seal of approval that we could look for that can be had?” Wu asked. “And what kind of testing went into the robots in the first place?”

Issues such as hackers and the potential for fraud must also be given consideration, said Fraker. “For every great capability that’s ever been developed … there’s an opposing potential dark side,” he cautioned.

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Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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Hidden Risks of Violence

The Las Vegas shooting and other tragedies increase demand for non-physical damage BI coverages. The market is growing, but do new products meet companies’ new needs?
By: | December 14, 2017 • 5 min read

Mass shootings in the United States and the emergence of new forms of terrorism in Europe are boosting demand for insurance against losses caused by business interruption when a policyholder suffers no direct property damage, according to insurers.

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But brokers say coverage for non-physical damage BI (NDBI), needs to evolve to better meet the emerging needs of corporate clients.

For years, manufacturing clients sought a more comprehensive range of NDBI coverages, especially due to the indirect effects of natural catastrophes such as the Thai floods that disrupted global supply chains in 2011.

More recently, however, hospitality and entertainment companies are expressing interest as they strive to adapt to realities such as the mass shootings in tourism hotspots Las Vegas and Orlando and terror attacks in such popular destinations as New York, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and London.

In addition to loss of life and property, revenue loss is a real risk. Tragedies that cause a high number of fatalities can cause severe financial losses, especially for companies relying on tourism, as visitors shy away from crime scenes.

Precedents already exist. Paris received 1.5 million fewer visitors than expected in 2016, after the French capital was targeted by a series of deadly terror attacks the year before.

More recently, bookings declined in the immediate aftermath of a shooting at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas that took the lives of 58 people on October 1: Bookings at the hotel have since recovered.

Joey Sylvester, national director of operations & planning, Public Sector, Gallagher

“The recent horrific mass shootings in Las Vegas, Nev., and in Sutherland Springs, Texas, raised awareness and concerns about similar events occurring in areas where the public congregates, such as entertainment venues like sporting events, concerts, restaurants, movie theaters, convention centers and more,” said Bob Nusslein, head of Innovative Risk Solutions Americas, Swiss Re CS.

“The second highest NDBI cover to natural catastrophes is terrorism, including active shooter and mass shootings.”

However, products available in the market do not always provide the protection companies would like. Active shooter coverages, for example, focus mostly on third-party liabilities that policyholders may face after a shooting.

Loss-of-attraction policies often define triggering events with a high degree of detail. These events may need to be characterized as a terrorist attack or act of war by authorities. In some cases, access to the venue needs to be officially cut off by police.

It follows that an attack by a 64-year old ex-accountant who shoots hundreds of people for no apparent reason — as was the case in the Mandalay Bay tragedy — isn’t likely to align with a typical policy trigger.

But insurers say they are trying to adapt to the evolving realities of both mass shootings and terrorism to meet the new needs expressed by clients.

“The active shooting coverage is drawing much interest in the U.S. market right now. In Europe, clients are increasingly inquiring about loss of attraction,” said Chris Parker, head of terrorism and political violence, Beazley.

“What we are doing at the moment is to try and cross these two kinds of products, so that a client can get coverage for the loss of attraction resulting from an active shooting event.”

Loss-of-attraction policies cover revenue loss derived from catastrophic events, and underwriters already offer alternatives that provide coverage, even when no property damage is involved.

To establish the reach of such a policy, buyers can define a trigger radius — a physical area defined in the policy. If a catastrophic event takes place within this radius, coverage will be triggered. This practice is sometimes called “cat in a box.”

Some products specify locations that, if hit by a catastrophic event, will result in lost revenue for the insured. For resorts or large entertainment complexes, for example, attacks on nearby airports could cause significant loss of revenue and could be covered by NDBI insurance.

Measuring losses is a challenge, and underwriters may demand steep retention levels. According to Parker, excess coverage may kick in after a 20 percent to 25 percent revenue drop.

Insurers will also want proof that the drop is related to the catastrophic event rather than economic downturn, seasonal variances or other factors.

“Capacity is very large for direct acts of terrorism but lower for indirect terrorism and violent acts because the exposure is far greater,” said Joey Sylvester, national director of operations & planning, Public Sector, Gallagher.

“Commercial businesses, public entities, religious and nonprofit organizations have various needs for this type of coverage, and the appetite is certainly trending upward.”

It is difficult to foresee which events will cause business disruption. As a result, according to Nusslein, companies generally prefer to purchase all-risk NDBI covers rather than named-perils coverage.

“The main reason is that, if they have coverage for four potential NDBI events and a fifth event occurs, the fifth event is not covered,” he said. “Insurers, new to NDBI covers, still prefer named-perils covers over all-risk cover.”

Current geopolitical tensions are also fueling buyers’ demands.

“Many companies want nuclear, biochemical, chemical and radiological exclusions removed from terrorism NDBI covers. While this is more difficult for insurers, it is not impossible,” Nusslein said.

“War risk NDBI cover is becoming more sought after due to political tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.”

“Many companies want nuclear, biochemical, chemical and radiological exclusions removed from terrorism NDBI covers. While this is more difficult for insurers, it is not impossible.” — Bob Nusslein, head of Innovative Risk Solutions Americas, Swiss Re CS

Natural catastrophes still constitute the largest share of perils underlying NDBI products.  Parametric indexes are increasingly employed to provide uncontroversial triggers to policies, said Duncan Ellis, U.S. property practice leader, Marsh.

These indexes range from rainfall levels and wind speed to the measured intensity of earthquakes. Interest in this kind of NDBI coverage expanded after the recent hurricane season.

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“The benefit of these products is that you do not have to go through the settlement process, which clients hate,” Ellis said.

NDBI policies are often bespoke, which is more common for very large insurance buyers.

“Usually, the market offers bespoke coverages for individual industries or clients, with very significant deductibles,” said Tim Cracknell, partner,  JLT Specialty.

NDBI cover can also help transfer regulatory and product recall risks. The life science sector is expressing interest in this kind of solution for cases where a supplier goes bankrupt or is shut down by a regulator, or a medication needs to be recalled due to perceived flaws in the manufacturing process.

Experts say that concerns still to be addressed are NDBI losses caused by cyber attacks and pandemics.

Capacity is an ongoing concern. According to Swiss Re CS, $50 million to $100 million, or even more, can be achieved through foundation capacity provided by a lead insurer, with syndicated capacity to other insurers and reinsurers, depending on the risk. &

Rodrigo Amaral is a freelance writer specializing in Latin American and European risk management and insurance markets. He can be reached at [email protected]