Automation - People and Paradoxes

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The meeting of automation and people is filled with paradoxes. Automation is a job killer, but also generates millions of new jobs. Automated processes are boringly predictable, but making them work well requires a surprising amount of creativity. And the more automated machines become, the more crucial becomes human involvement.


Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” As an engineer who works with automation, I can only agree. Paradoxes make us think hard to understand how things work, and understanding how things work is what engineers like to do.


Automation is taking jobs. That’s a bad thing and that’s a good thing.

Automation gets a lot of bad press because when machines replace people, they leave hard-working folks unemployed. Practically everything we hear about automation makes us wonder who the robots will kick out next. McKinsey recently analyzed over 800 job types and broke them down into over 2,000 separate work activities. They then demonstrated that 45% of the activities that people are currently paid to perform can be replaced with existing automation technology – not the new stuff that hasn’t even been invented yet.


Automation undeniably does take jobs. Just look at the share of Americans employed in farming in 1900 (40%) compared to 2000 (less than 2%), and the share of Americans employed in manufacturing in 1950 (25%) compared to 2010 (less than 10%). That can be a bad thing if those affected don’t get help to retrain for other jobs.


But the fact that automation replaces humans in the workforce is also a good thing. As populations in advanced economies grow older and birth rates shrink, there soon won’t be enough working people around to fill jobs. Unless there is a significant productivity boost, countries from Japan to Denmark and the US and even China, who all will have fewer working-age people, will not be able to maintain their GDP per capita. Automation can help fill the gap between falling working populations and economic growth.


Automated industries can add more jobs than unautomated industries. What?

Automation usually gets a bad rap as a job killer, but the reality is more complex. As James Bessen points out in The Atlantic, another of automation’s paradoxes is that while it kills jobs with one hand, it creates many more with the other.

People left the agricultural sector in droves during the Industrial Revolution, but the manufacturing sector grew by leaps and bounds. And in the US since 1980, employment in occupations with above-average computer use has grown much faster (1.6% per year) than occupations with lower-than-average computer use (0.74%).

Bessen explains this apparent paradox with some simple economics. When the manufacture of products and provision services get automated, their costs-of-goods sold fall and their prices come down. Lower prices increase demand. When demand increases enough, more jobs are created, not fewer.


Automation creates new kinds of jobs, too. When machines do the heavy lifting and perform a lot of repetitious tasks for us, we’re freed up to do other things that involve things like creativity and social and emotional skills – all traits where people still out-perform robots.


The less humans are involved in automation, the more important their involvement becomes

When we say that machines are getting smarter and smarter, we mean that they operate more and more autonomously. The machines do what they were programmed to do, and the people can do something else. And machines are getting smarter.


This leads us to another paradox of automation: The smarter machines get, and the less humans must involve themselves with running them, the more important human involvement becomes. As Lisanne Bainbridge wrote back in the 1980s, “the increased interest in human factors among engineers reflects the irony that the more advanced a control system is, so the more crucial may be the contribution of the human operator.”


Machines are extremely efficient at doing the same thing over and over, but if they start to do the wrong thing over and over, they can automate disaster with the same efficiency.


Human-machine collaboration becomes increasingly important as the skill sets of the humans who design, install, monitor and maintain the machines become increasingly specialized.


It takes a lot of creativity to be boringly predictable

For most people, the results of smart automation are uninteresting to watch. There’s not much drama when machines repeat the same tasks over and over, 24/7/365. But as any engineer who works with automation knows, it takes a lot of creativity to be able to be so boringly predictable.

Designing factory automation systems is kind of like playing with LEGO bricks.  There are a fixed number of elements, and the creativity comes from putting them together in new ways – not necessarily by creating new elements. The designers at LEGO get to do that, but kids don’t get to create their own new pieces. They use a modular system where the bits and pieces were designed to work together, then apply their creativity to come up with all kinds of amazing things.


Factory automation engineers are creative, too. In my experience, the best ones start with a modular system that includes a bunch of parts that were designed to work together, then apply their creativity to make things that work in new ways. There’s not much re-inventing of the wheel, but there is lots on invention. Sure, every once in a while we have to add a new element to do something we’ve never tried before, but most of the time we’re working with processes and parts we already know, just trying to do it as efficiently – and elegantly – as possible in new ways.


Here in Scandinavia, we try to make room for creativity on the job. We think it gives a competitive edge. Maybe it’s because so many of us played with LEGO bricks when we were kids, I don’t know. But I do know that a lot of really great, creative ideas come when you’ve got a little downtime, not when you’re stressed out. It could be in the middle of the night or when you’re taking a shower, but it’s rarely at the end of a 12-hour day.


Lean is good. Too lean is not so good

If something is good for you, isn’t a lot of it really good for you? Not necessarily.


After the finance crisis in 2008, a lot of companies made deep staff cuts. Going lean was the new mantra, and maximizing output with as little headcount as possible was the best game in town.


I know a lot of companies had to reduce costs fast, but I’m pretty sure a lot of them went overboard. Too many companies wore their folks down by pouring more work onto fewer people. Yes, they cut costs. But they also cut a lot of creativity and innovation. They got so lean that they got mean. Any accountant can tell you what it costs if you have one person too many on the payroll, but there are not so many who understand what it costs if you have one too few. That’s when the mistakes start happening, that’s when corporate reputations begin to fray – and that’s when customers start looking for alternatives.


It might sound paradoxical that the technical director of an automation company would argue for something as un-lean as staff having some surplus time, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. If you want creative people to be innovative and create value, then you have to give them the time and space to be reflective, lean back and stare out the window sometimes.  


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