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The Impact of AI and IoT on the Manufacturing Job Market

Organizations and employees must be willing to embrace AI and IoT to ensure progress into the future.

By Cherie Shepard

Depending on your perspective, the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) invokes one of two opinions: One, eventually the machines will rule the world. Or two, you appreciate the benefits of modern technology.

But either way, one thing is certain: The human workforce relinquishes a bit of responsibility with each technological advancement.

The late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking assumed technology would eventually cause our demise. He theorized that it “could spell the end of the human race.” Without a doubt, AI coupled with the Internet of Things (IoT) devices will impact not only just the manufacturing sector, but every industry within the job market.

These technologies, once considered science fiction, are integrated into many aspects of our daily lives. Modern manufacturing is programmed to rely on software and smart devices. And smart phones have been an integral part of industrial engineering for over a decade. Modern technologies are changing the way we work and live. Notions aside, we can agree that AI and IoT will transform every sector.

Defining AI

Before we go any further into our discussion, let’s define our terms: Artificial intelligence (AI) has been defined as “the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings.”

As pointed out by futurist Bernard Marr, AI is traditionally utilized for one of three purposes:

1. To build systems that think exactly like humans do (“strong AI”).

2. To allow systems to work without figuring out how human reasoning works (“weak AI”).

3. To use human reasoning as a model but not necessarily the end goal.

Companies such as Apple, Amazon and Facebook utilize machine learning to improve customer experience. We see technologies such as Siri, Alexa and Google Maps seamlessly interwoven into our daily lives to provide a more efficient lifestyle. On the other hand, manufacturing plants are utilizing robots and machine learning to optimize their operations on the factory floor.

Defining the Internet of Things (IoT)

In the past few years there’s been increasing buzz about the Internet of Things (IoT) along with some confusion. Futurist Jacob Morgan provides a concise definition: “Simply put, this is the concept of basically connecting any device with an on and off switch to the Internet (and/or to each other).”

With the widespread adoption of Wi-Fi, connecting devices to an Internet connection has become quite simple. And now, practical appliances such as your television, coffee maker and refrigerator can all be a part of the IoT. However, the practical implication of IoT technology goes far beyond the home. Within the next two years, it’s projected there will be four IoT devices for every human being—that’s more than 24 billion IoT devices across the globe.

The Appeal of AI and IoT

Max Tegmark, president of the Future of Life Institute, once said, “Everything we love about civilization is a product of intelligence, so amplifying our human intelligence with artificial intelligence has the potential of helping civilization flourish like never before—as long as we manage to keep the technology beneficial.“

As AI and IoT technologies are adopted, there’s a responsibility to ensure they remain beneficial to enterprises and humanity as a whole. So far, the result has led to efficient manufacturing processes. We’re able to accomplish more in less time and with fewer resources. And in general, today’s workforce has benefited from these efficiencies. Now employees have instant access to needed information. Connected networks have provided automated manufacturing processes that were previously slow and even dangerous to the human workforce.

But at the same time, machine learning could result in a negative impact on employment as a whole. Several years ago, in an article titled, “Will Robots Steal Your Job?” Farhad Manjoo imagined this potential when he wrote, “At this moment, there's someone training for your job. He may not be as smart as you are—in fact, he could be quite stupid—but what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for in drive, reliability, consistency and price. He's willing to work for longer hours, and he’s capable of doing better work, at a much lower wage. He doesn’t ask for health or retirement benefits, he doesn’t take sick days, and he doesn’t goof off when he’s on the clock.”

The Ramifications of AI and IoT

The long-term implications of these technologies are still uncertain. Whether the impact is positive or negative, manufacturing is sure to feel the result.

Workers are no longer competing solely with a human workforce. Even some of the most skilled workers could potentially lose their job to a machine. Every day computers are becoming more efficient with processing human problem-solving skills. As a result, machine learning is set to disrupt nearly every role.

Additional security measures need to be considered. As we become more connected within the workplace, employees are exposed to new threats. Data breaches impact the organization and the employees within. Software that serves to help company personnel can also provide opportunities to malicious threats.

Increasing wages are one of the most obvious economical benefits to employees. However, increasing wages have led to the development of automation. We’re already seeing workers being replaced by machines. So far many of the affected jobs have been low-paying jobs that require little experience or education. However, machine learning will allow technology to replace even technical jobs. Manjoo notes that even attorneys could be susceptible to AI’s impact.

However, nearly in the same breath, Manjoo also notes that technology sometimes replaces workers in the short run. Then, over time, technological improvements lead to economic growth. We can all agree with him when he says, “Economic growth improves prospects for workers across a range of industries.”

In spite of economic growth, there’s a cautionary tale we should be aware of. When we become dependent on technology, we often lose the skills that technology has replaced. We’re already seeing the impact smart phones have had on simple memorization. Science proves that unused muscles leads to atrophy. Few of us can recount a phone number without relying on the use of our phone.

Working Alongside AI and IoT

To a certain degree, we all fear the unknown. Despite the growing optimism, there’s a certain amount of skepticism that follows. What function will be automated? What position will be replaced by a machine?

These are legitimate concerns within the manufacturing industry. Research on the impact of AI within the workforce presents two polarizing viewpoints. It’s seen as extremely beneficial in efficiency. But at the same time it’s believed to be the biggest employment disruption since the last Industrial Revolution.

Recently Georgios Petropoulos, an industrial organization researcher, outlined what roles he believes to be most directly impacted. He argues that mid-level jobs requiring routine manual skills are at risk. “In the long run, initial labor displacement effects of jobs with routinized manual or cognitive skills, as in previous industrial revolutions, will be compensated for by the growth in non-routine jobs at the high and low end of the economy.”

But rather than worrying about the what-ifs, manufacturers should embrace the positive implications that AI and IoT can provide. Working alongside AI and IoT will lead to the following:

First, manufacturing stands to benefit from a productivity perspective. Artificial intelligence will be able to reduce, and eventually eliminate, customary data collection. This will free up employees to engage in the more rewarding aspects of their jobs. Rather than viewing AI as an employment threat, it should be seen as an opportunity for more efficient manufacturing.  

Second, working alongside these technological advancements will demand new security and data collection protocols. As IoT devices are further adopted, there will be more opportunities for outside threats. The idea may sound silly, but an integrated smart home could potentially be hacked through television, providing access to someone’s personal records.

In today’s interconnected world, companies need to provide trust alongside innovation. Within manufacturing, AI and IoT will continue to expedite processes, create efficiencies and eliminate the potential for human error. But without the appropriate security protocols, employees could be exposed to identity theft or other harmful data collection. Implementing these technologies will demand an employer protect customer and personnel information. If employed effectively, manufacturers can gain faster insights, improve decision-making and develop more efficient processes while avoiding the negative consequences.

Third, the adoption of AI and IoT will require the employee to evolve. A robot may not replace you, but the reality is that these technologies will disrupt current roles. Just as we saw with the previous Industrial Revolution, new technology results in a labor market shift.

These trends have caused some to worry, but as one economist stated, “Since the dawn of the industrial age, a recurrent fear has been that technological change will spawn mass unemployment. Neoclassical economists predicted that this would not happen, because people would find other jobs, albeit possibly after a long period of painful adjustment. By and large, that prediction has proven to be correct.”

Within manufacturing, and across the board, these technologies call for change. Employees must be willing to adapt and further develop their skills. It could even require learning new skills. The rise of technology demands that education become an ongoing process.

No matter how advanced technology becomes, there will always be a human element. AI still has a long way to go when it comes to assessing human emotion. And industry relies on human connection. In this rapidly changing environment, employees must never overlook the importance of maintaining personal connections—those traits that separate us from the machines.

The full magnitude of these technologies’ impact on the labor market is still to be determined. The Digital Revolution will require ongoing reliance on AI and IoT technologies.

The inevitable impact of automation on all industries is certain. But with these modern advancements comes the potential for efficient manufacturing. Organizations and employees must be willing to embrace these technologies to ensure progress into the future.

Cherie Shepard is director of packaging, material handling & food processing at Direct Recruiters Inc.

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