“There is no reason and no way that a human mind can keep up with an artificial intelligence machine by 2035,” predicted the techno-futurist philosopher Gray Scott. But the truth is more nuanced: automation will create as many opportunities for humans as it reduces. Here’s how manufacturers can greatly enhance their processes—and address the U.S.’s skills shortage.

The fear of machines taking away humans’ jobs has always been prevalent. On another occasion, Scott predicted that robots “will work in our factories, drive our cars and walk our dogs. Like it or not, the age of work is coming to an end.”

We’ll examine whether or not this is true in a moment. In the meantime, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has placed a new perspective on the role of automation and robots—particularly in relation to the skilled labor shortage in the U.S. 

According to recent research by the U.S. government and ThomasNet, 30% of manufacturers say they are seeking new hires. Yet, at the same time, the overall rate of employment in manufacturing declined sharply by 19.1 per cent from January to April 2020. Manufacturers are struggling to hire new people—but what can they do about it? 

The recent “COVID-19: What it means for industrial manufacturing” report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) advised that manufacturers should increase their use of automation to reduce the number of workers on the factory floor. And it seems that companies are doing just that, with one-third of companies interviewed in Euromonitor International’s Voice of the Industry survey 2020 saying they will accelerate investments into automation tools.

This scenario can easily be interpreted as robots one, humans nil — that the COVID-19 pandemic, plus the skilled labor shortage, are creating a human-shaped void in machine shops that robots will occupy. But, actually, the truth is far more interesting. 

Automation affects workers’ skills in two main ways. First, automation can also increase the levels of skill required. This tends to reduce the number of employees needed at a given facility, but the remaining staff must be highly skilled. To accommodate for this, companies must invest in, and train, their staff.

Second, while automation requires higher levels of skill from some workers, it reduces the levels of skill needed from others. For lower-skilled workers, this might entail more accessible data share through customized reports or less skill-intensive control through easy-to-use human machine interfaces (HMIs). Put simply, the automated future will create, as well as reduce, opportunities for employees of varying skill levels. 

Machine Learning

A paper by New York’s Columbia University, “Toward understanding the impact of artificial intelligence on labor,” examines the role of machine learning in this new paradigm. “Machine learning appears to bolster the productivity of software developers,” says the report, “while also creating new investment and manufacturing opportunities (e.g., autonomous vehicles).” The paper concludes that human workers’ skills do not remain static, but evolve with technology.

As for the impact of COVID-19, the adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning were accelerating even before the crisis according to Verizon’s “The Future of Work” study. The report states that, “human skills and attributes are even more important as a result of the pandemic.” Its research—based on two surveys of senior executives from a range of industries and regions, one before and one during the pandemic—found that emotional intelligence in the human workforce had grown in importance for 69% of respondents as a result of the crisis. 

Machine learning can replace certain repetitive tasks and operate at rates unfathomable for human beings. But there is no substitute for human qualities like empathy, which are equally unfathomable to AI. 

That also extends to innovations like vision systems; an example being where sensors and AI are used to spot product defects. There’s no substitute for human engineering expertise — and a person’s final judgement is still required for any real-time pass or fail judgements.

Better Working Culture

On the subject of empathy, the misgivings of Scott and Musk overlook the importance of working culture within any organization. Any company—particularly manufacturing environments—needs staff to thrive at their jobs and drive continuous improvement efforts. 

As stated in “Human Factor in Smart Industry: A Literature Review” published by Brazil’s renowned Federal University of Technology – Paraná (UTFPR): “Human work will be indispensable in smart industries, both for the development of this concept as the management and operationalization of advanced production systems, technologies and processes.”

Although workers in smart factories may be required to do less physically, more efficient AI communications will emphasize the importance of human decision-making “based on sets of criteria, tools and data,” reports UTFPR. The comments apply “not only to the operator, but to technicians, managers and other employees at operational, tactical and strategic levels.” So, both high and low-skilled workers.

Not only can these technologies suit workers’ skills, they must also win their buy-in to these new systems and processes. That’s why companies that effectively improve their workers’ skills are the ones that will get ahead. This is possible through the better use of data, data management and sharing and better reporting—and therefore better communication—in the plant.

Finally, manufacturers must get beyond the misconception that Industry 4.0 requires significant capital investment from businesses. This needn’t be the case and, instead, the key may lie in sourcing the right industrial automation parts, like sensors, and applying these as part of a low-cost digital retrofitting strategy.

Whether or not a human mind can keep up with AI by 2035, as predicted by Scott, automated technologies will nevertheless open doors of opportunity for human workers.