Humans and Machines Can Co-exist

By Harsha Lal

Disruption in industrial manufacturing is already here. Automation, digitisation, and advances in Artificial Intelligence is seeing a paradigm shift in traditional manufacturing industries. Automation and Artificial Intelligence leading to smart robots are already creating value for enterprises and businesses by way of improved productivity, greater accuracy and decrease in errors resulting in faster time to market. What does all this portend for the human resource working on the shop floor? Naturally there is some cause for worry.

A recent study by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) revealed that AI and automation would actually cause fewer job losses than originally anticipated, roughly 14 percent in the OECD countries including the US, the UK, Canada and Japan. When translated into actual numbers it would mean approximately 66 million job losses to AI and automation.  According to the draft of the World Development Report 2019 published by the World Bank, the fear that robots will take away our jobs in the days to come is highly exaggerated. With the advent of automation on the shop floor, enterprises would be compelled to think of non-routine tasks for humans that resist automation. Governments and enterprises need to reframe policies and think of retraining and requalification as automation is likely to increase the yawning gap between high-paying highly skilled jobs and low-paying insecure operations.

New Wave

This new wave of technological disruption follows a pattern of evolution in industry where new technologies have consistently arisen – from the early 1800s to 1950s and 1960s – which dramatically increased industrial output amid stated fears of job losses. The World Bank report notes that concerns over job losses due to technology-led disruption are not new. Since the nineteenth century, several thinkers have worried about this possibility, but their dire predictions have not come true. And this time is no different, the World Bank argues. The World Bank argument is based on the fact that individuals with strong human capital can reap higher benefits from technologies as they are able to better adapt to the changing work. In fact, the opposite was true as industrialisation gave rise to job creation for skilled workers. In India, the Green Revolution saw more educated farmers adopt new technologies faster. Or even much more recently, software technology advancements have created new job categories such as Mobile App Developers, who constitute a four million workforce in India.

In keeping with the trend of disruption in innovation, the current industrialisation 4.0, as many are terming it, is leading to a new way of working, creating jobs that didn’t exist before in the mainstream. A quick view of the share of jobs in the decade 1980-2012 reveals that traditional industrial jobs such as machinists, welders, carpenters, machine operators have all fallen, because those were ‘automatable.’

This wave of industrial evolution 4.0 will clearly divide us according to Karen Moloney, a futurologist and business psychologist, who says, “The world will divide into those who understand technology and those who don’t.” A recent World Economic Forum study, Future of Jobs, predicts that five million jobs will be lost by 2020. But technological advances will also create 2.1 million jobs. Yes, manual and clerical workers may find themselves at the wrong end of the job funnel, and jobs that require high degree of specialisation including mathematics, engineering, computing etc., will be here to stay. What this means is that if the next generation of workers want to be in the reckoning then it is imperative that they start leaning towards those fields that require innovative and disruptive thinking like programming, artificial intelligence, data analysis across all industries, including agriculture or healthcare for instance.

We Need Automation

Man is made for thinking, ideating, conceptualising and innovating. When manual, repetitive tasks are done by humans, it pushes the worker into a comfort zone which is resistant to out-of-the-box thinking. The myth that automation will take away all jobs is not completely true. Yes, there are going to be loss of mundane jobs, but let’s look at what it can also do if deployed thoughtfully and well: they increase productivity, reduce costs and bring in agility in the supply chain for manufacturers.

Let’s take a case in point: in Germany, manufacturers deploy 3x times the robots compared to the US. While this is true, it is safe to say that they still employ more humans as newer lines of jobs have opened up and their workforce size is 2x that of Northern America.

Before we start hounding the idea of automation, AI and robots, more out of fear of the unknown, it would behove us to think of how the convergence of AI and human intelligence could usher in a new era of transformation in manufacturing –   speed, flexibility, efficiency – could be accomplished seamlessly, while humans can continue to use their knowledge to solve optimisation problems on the shop floor.

HR in organisations will have to actively study, understand and formulate frameworks of training and re-skilling and be prepared for the new industrial revolution 4.0. They need to have people and processes in place and ensure the transition to automation and digitisation is seamless. Questions that HR should start asking to make this happen are: How do I map the future of jobs against the current ones? What kind of job demands can I meet by retraining workers?

Would it be possible to hire new ones that meet the future jobs’ demands? Who can I partner with to help me succeed in my quest to deliver to demands?

Co-existence

At one end of the spectrum we have the bogey that automation and robots in manufacturing are killing jobs. On the other hand, a report by the Manufacturing Institute says that currently over two million jobs in the manufacturing sector are going unfulfilled, largely due to an aging workforce.

It would be safe to say that machines and robots aren’t stealing jobs. There’s disruption for sure, but sensible robots also lead to improvement in job conditions on the shop floor: robots are more reliable, cost-effective, deliver better ROI, and are safer causing fewer accidents and injuries. In fact, with intelligent automation, quality of life is likely to improve, with highly skilled workforce, higher pay, higher education and more disposable income, boosting a nation’s GDP.

Manufacturers can focus on innovation and invest wisely on processes and skilling while the entire education system can start introducing curricula that helps students get better training in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). While there’s no doubt there will be some disruption, we must realise that only humans can offer empathy, compassion, leadership, vision and motivation.
We know that man and machine can co-exist because the long-term benefits to society as a whole will far outweigh short-term displacements.

(Harsha Lal is the CEO of Systemantics, a Bangalore-based industrial robot maker)

 

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