Technology is advancing exponentially. Ray Kurzweill, a legendary inventor, entrepreneur and visionary, predicted that as technologies evolve, there will be a blur of the line between human and machine. How is the amazing progression of technology impacting workers ? In a recent Ted Talk, Erik Brynjolfsson (2013) argued that the average worker is “stagnating” and that this is a problem that is characterised by the newly growing machine age. Productivity is growing very quickly but it is explained that this has become disassociated from jobs.
The machine age is argued to be exponential with computers getting very, very fast very quickly. An example is that a child’s Playstation currently is more powerful than a supercomputer used by the military in the mid-1990s. Machine learning, argues Erik Brynjolfsson, is perhaps one of the most important innovations of them all, and that this with have a very significant contribution to the machine age. While it is explained that people have been disillusioned from productivity being decoupled from employment, this should not be the case. Brynjolfsson’s point is that:
“Instead of racing against the machine, we need to learn to race with the machine. That is our grand challenge.”
These matters have also been the subject of a recent commentary by Will Knight (2014), reporting for the MIT Technology Review. It is Knight’s assertion that:
“Robots are starting to collaborate with human workers in factories offering greater efficiency and flexibility.”
It is argued that there will be an 85% reduction in workers’ idle time when they collaborate more effectively with robots. Some people worry about that, though BMW, which has introduced robots already to a human production line believes that robots will never completely replace people in factories, since people have ideas, and robots do not. At BMW, robots are being used for tasks that could create repetitive strain industry in humans, which is rather beneficial all around.
Despite the reassurances that people will never completely be replaced by robots, certainly factory floor teams are changing from how we would have recognised them over the past several decades. Robots are becoming cheaper and are able to be programmed to work powerfully, quickly and with exacting precision. Until now many robots could not work with people nearby as it was unsafe to do this. Now, however, new robots have been created that can bring the cost of the manufacturing process down and can also work in the production line with humans, safely. Optimists see a future where robots use automation skills, and humans use handicraft and ingenuity and the whole team can be more productive than ever before.
In the future it is also anticipated that robots will be more powerful and more useful. One example given is that robots could be used to carry out heavy lifting while people do wiring activities. This allows the best skills of both to be used in a manner that is also beneficial to health and safety. BMW has reportedly been working on ways in which humans and machines can collaborate. Other research activities have looked at ways in which humans and robots can work together to learn one another’s preferences and come up with ways to get the job done faster. Surprisingly enough, humans seek to be accepting of their robotic counterparts. Perhaps weirdly, some people like to let robots take charge, having them tell them what to do. This could see robots of the future both giving out tools and also providing people with detailed instructions on how they should be used. This future is not so far away as you might think.
Universal has developed robot arms and the sales of these have been steadily, but increasingly growing since they first hit the market in 2008. There are also other companies getting in on the act, such as a company from Boston called Rethink Robotics. This company is working on developing a two armed robot named “Baxter”. The robot is believed to be safe, but additionally, extraordinarily easy to program. Indeed, it is argued that any person, any worker will be able to train it to carry out a new task. This is achieved simply by moving the arms of the robot through the steps that need to be carried out to complete the task.
Human – Robot teams could be coming to a factory floor near you sooner than you think. But this is not necessarily a scary profit. Rather, it could bring about remarkable benefits for organisations that are open to it.
Paula Newton is a business writer, editor and management consultant with extensive experience writing and consulting for both start-ups and long established companies. She has ten years management and leadership experience gained at BSkyB in London and Viva Travel Guides in Quito, Ecuador, giving her a depth of insight into innovation in international business. With an MBA from the University of Hull and many years of experience running her own business consultancy, Paula’s background allows her to connect with a diverse range of clients, including cutting edge technology and web-based start-ups but also multinationals in need of assistance. Paula has played a defining role in shaping organizational strategy for a wide range of different organizations, including for-profit, NGOs and charities. Paula has also served on the Board of Directors for the South American Explorers Club in Quito, Ecuador.