Are We Programmed to Work?

As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.
Terry Gou, Chairman, Foxconn

That startling quote was in an article from the New York Times about the proliferation of robots in manufacturing and distribution centers. This proliferation is accelerating due to the increase in sophistication, programmability, miniaturization, and integration of vision recognition capabilities.

Robots are nothing new in manufacturing and have been deployed in assembly lines for decades. These robots were augmentative to core human worker functions and had limitations in terms of price, maintenance, and limited abilities for very simple and highly repetitive tasks. Human workers were still needed for tasks that robots could not learn or replicate.

With new technologies, software, chip design and the ability to dynamically reprogram on-site or remotely robots quickly, robots are able to do a wider variety of not just repetitive tasks, but irregular tasks in unpredictable environments. While Apple is still using hundreds of thousands of workers that to meticulous hand-based skills, companies like Philips are embracing robotics to do very intricate and variegated tasks that would be cost prohibitive using human labor.

These trends have a large impact on the meaning of work and productivity. Work is transforming from making, moving or transforming things through traditional work environments to one of designing, operating and servicing the assembly lines. This has also led . . . doing less physical labor, the stress is now more psychological. It takes a different type of higher level conversation that is more conceptual to maintain and trouble-shoot in these highly automated environments. Source

Distribution center automation has . . . sprinters can store, retrieve and pack goods for shipment . . much more efficiently and with higher volume than if humans tried to do the same tasks. In hospitals, automated carts are remotely stored, can pick, pack, record inventory and item history and deliver through underground tunnels and even use elevators automatically to waiting nurses or technicians who then use the items, which are scanned or have RFID tags that silently communicate with databases to record the history of a single item from delivery to use.

Intel opened a new chip plant in the south that is many football fields in size, but the factory is almost fully automated using only a few score dozen of workers to manage the automated process. These are high skilled jobs, but the amount of employment to build products an run a plant is becoming smaller and smaller. The era of linear manufacturing lines are ending, and a more dynamic and flexible manufacturing model is taking shape where robots can respond and adapt to unpredictable and non-repetitive environments and be remotely reprogrammed to then do another task without changing the physical plant. This is not limited to manufacturing and distribution, but is transforming many types of work environments.

With the rise of cloud computing, the ability to manage large amounts of data streams through distributed computer networks is a type of robotic automation. Finding patterns in big data that can lead to specific action could never be processed and organized well by the human brain. This is a type of machine intelligence and automation that is increasing worker productivity and performance. Companies are doing more and more with less and less. Less and less means fewer workers doing more and more.

Furthering this automation front was Amazon’s Web Services called Mechanical Turk:

. . . enables companies to programmatically access this marketplace and a diverse, on-demand workforce . . . Businesses or developers needing tasks done (called Human Intelligence Tasks or “HITs”) can use the robust Mechanical Turk APIs to access thousands of high quality, low cost, global, on-demand workers—and then programmatically integrate the results of that work directly into their business processes and systems.

The term Mechanical Turk came from a mechanical automaton created by Wolfgang von Kempelen for the court of Maria Theresa in 1769. This object was programmed to play key chess games near check mate and became a sensation in Vienna. That Turk was to capture the imagination. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is to create a cost-effective systemic pool of skilled people whose skills are essentially atomized and plugged in for highly defined, repetitive work.

In a more contemporary situation, the role of military pilots who remotely control drone aircraft half a world and twelve time zones away has transformed their traditional work environment of direct experience expert systems to indirect monitoring command/control systems is redefining the act of being a pilot. There has not been enough time to clearly define a new pilot work culture based on this new model, but it is raising many issues of pilots identifying with flying without being on an aircraft.

From an experience design and user experience perspective, creating new protocols and interactions with robots, robotic systems and distributed network systems will call for new metaphors and behaviors of humans to these systems that allow the intended value of all forms of automation on human performance. This will require new work models and identifying opportunities for humans to connect to these new work environments and reduce both cognitive stress and/or a lack of identification with work tasks and environments. Creating engaging systems that are responsive, humanistic and performance driven will become important for both increased productivity and believing in the value of one’s work.

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