Automations means applying a wide range of technology for reducing human roles in production. At the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the looming job loss threat from automation is a big concern. Despite the job loss threat, why are you after it? Surprisingly, it’s neither new nor a conspiracy to cause harm. Automation is our vital means of Getting jobs done better. We reduce wastage, improve precision, enhance quality, and lower cost through automation. Consequentially, we succeed in producing more economic value or Wealth from the same resource while causing less harm to the environment. Unfortunately, often, it happens through the job delegation from human to machine.
But automation also enables less unskilled and inexperienced workforce eligible for factory jobs, which used to be performed by skilled workforce before. Furthermore, robots as software agents have been taking over cognitive roles in the office environment—causing white-collar job loss. Due to dual roles, the debate about whether automation is a blessing or a curse is still non-conclusive.
From the very beginning of human existence, humans are after increasing productivity. Hence, the obvious means is to develop machine capability to take over production roles from humans. Such role delegation frees up time, resulting in increased wealth creation and living standards. Therefore, human beings are after advancing technologies and using them to design better machines to delegate growing roles, from manual to cognitive, from the human. This role delegation from human to machine with the help of technologies is automation. Due to the advancement of technologies, the automation footprint has been deepening.
Basic building blocks of automation are (i) sensors for gathering data, (ii) algorithm and software to understand sensor data for perceiving the situation, (iii) reasoning to compare the current status with the goal and deciding in taking actions, and (iv) end effector to apply the action. A feedback control loop is an integral part of the automation system. The simplest example of automation is ball and cock in a modern flush toilet. On the other extreme, an autonomous car is an example of an extremely complex form of automation.
History of automation:
For keeping accurate time, the description of a float regulator in Ptolemaic Egypt, about 270 BC, is the earliest example of automation using a feedback control mechanism. However, the arrival of the mechanical clock in the 14th century made the feedback control system of the water clock and the clock itself obsolete. In the early part of the 20th century, electro-mechanical technology took over pure mechanical means. In the middle of the 20th century, sensors and electronics took over the role of mechanical and electro-mechanical devices control. Subsequently, the software took the role of interpreting sensor data and logical part of decision making.
As a result, machines have been growing more sophisticated with greater flexibility, taking over cognitive roles. Most industrial products and systems, starting from the washing machine, production machinery to telephone exchanges, have been evolving due to the advancement of automation means. Furthermore, software agents are automating cognitive roles.
Benefits of automation:
Once, we had to intervene washing machine serval times to wash and dry our clothes. But due to the advancement of automation, our involvement has come down to loading dirty cloths and soap, pressing the start button, and unloading the clean and dry cloth. Similar changes have taken place in industrial production tasks, like welding joints and painting cars. Among several benefits, automation increases the productivity of our time in getting our jobs done. It improves precision and speed, resulting in lower wastage, higher quality, and less emission. For reducing wastage and increase the precision of cuts, robots are on the way to take over butchers’ jobs.
Furthermore, human presence in the production of food and medicines is a significant source of contamination. Hence, substituting the human role with automation offers the scope of addressing health issues. However, it also has disadvantages like initial high cost and growing inequality. Notably, it has been reducing the low-cost labor advantages of less developed countries. Due to automation, in the production of many products, labor cost has come down to less than 10 percent of the total cost.
Some examples are factory, industry, office, and home automation. In the 1960s, factory automation emerged due to the development of programmable logic controllers (PLC) using ladder logic. Among others, Richard Dick Morley made a substantial contribution to PLC development. Besides, the use of the first Unimate robot by General Motors in 1961 started a new era of industrial automation. A recent report of World Robotics shows a record of 2.7 million industrial robots operating in factories worldwide. In 2019 alone, as high as 373,000 units of robots were shipped globally in 2019.
The widespread use of connected personal computers in the office environment, development and diffusion of word processing software and spreadsheet, and database application led to office automation in the 1980s. In the recent past, the turning of home appliances and safety devices into intelligent internet of things (IoTs) has led to the development of the home automation concept.
Job-loss and creation effects—making the future of work uncertain:
A study indicates that U.S factories lost about 400,000 jobs, from 1990 to 2007, due to automation. Another study estimates that between 400 million and 800 million individuals may lose jobs to automation by 2030 worldwide.
On the other hand, automation also creates jobs, as it supports job division and organization as a production line. As a result, knowledge and skill requirement gets reduced, leaving only Innate abilities for a human worker to supply in the production. As a result, unskilled people become eligible for production jobs, once requiring an educated and skilled workforce. To take advantage of this effect of automation, multinational companies migrated manufacturing jobs to countries like China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. However, further advancement of automation will take back those jobs on the shore of advanced countries. Hence, automation makes the future of work dynamic, uncertain. Most importantly, it has been raising a vital question about survival in the midst of human-machine rivalry. It seems that creative destruction is at the core of shaping the future of work.
Automation technology and engineering:
In modern times, sensors, electronics, software, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), computer vision, and human hand-like end effectors are the core technologies of automation. There have been various sensors to detect and measure temperate, light, chemicals, moisture, pressure, and many more. Besides, high-resolution image sensors have opened a new dimension of automation, particularly, in industrial inspection. From programmable logic control (PLC), proportional integral derivative (PID) to intelligent control, diverse controllers have supported the sophistication of engineering of automation systems.
Furthermore, low latency wireless connectivity such as 5G has been advancing factory, city, or nation-wide automation—giving birth to smart grid, intelligent factory, and smart city. By the way, despite significant progress, the primitive state in several technologies like human-like robot hands is limiting the delegation of many roles from humans to machines. Particularly, many dull and dirty jobs are still left for humans. Nevertheless, several Disruptive technologies have been powering machine capability in taking over a growing number of jobs. But the current state of AI technology appears to suffer from a weak science base in exploiting the full potential of automation.
Robotic process automation (rpa):
This is an emerging concept. Unlike transforming the factory floors, rpa is business process automation technology based on metaphorical software robots. As opposed to physical robots, artificial intelligence as software agents performs a human-like cognitive role. Some of the major applications of rpa are invoice processing in finance & accounting, screening, hiring, and onboarding in human resource management, inventory management in retailing, payroll processing, and providing customer supports. Due to the progress of natural language processing, rpa has been finding an increasing role in offering customer care services.
It seems that automation and robotics will succeed in taking over innate abilities in the factory environment. As a result, the unskilled labor force of less developed countries will likely lose export-oriented factory jobs. On the other hand, due to machine learning and AI advancement, rpa will have increasing sophistication, killing white-collar office jobs. The role of the rpa in taking over codified and also tacit knowledge and skill white-collar workers is raising the question about education and training in skill development and also upskilling.
Furthermore, human-like robots known as Humanoid are being developed to take over service jobs like nursing. Despite the recent sensations like Robot Sophia or Ameca, humanoids are retiring before taking over such jobs. Notably, the premature retirement of Honda’s ASIMO, due to the ineligibility of being an elderly caregiver, is a cause of concern. Among many barriers, complexity in the development of humans’ innate abilities in machines is limiting service role delegations. Hence, there has been growing consensus that dull jobs will likely be left for humans, for the time being. Hence, the future of work for humanoid robots deserves attention.