Au­to­ma­tion will change the work­force — in some cases, it al­ready has — but not as quickly as you might ex­pect

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page - By Lau­ren Rosen­blatt

One day, a soft­ware sys­tem could an­swer cus­tomer calls. In fact, there are al­ready al­go­rithms in chat bots that can trans­late lan­guages in real time, and there are ro­bots that take in­ven­tory in re­tail stores.

And that’s just what Pitts­burgh com­pa­nies are work­ing on.

Tech­nol­ogy is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing an in­te­gral part of the work­place, act­ing more like a part of the team (ex­cept for maybe shar­ing lunch) and get­ting more tasks ev­ery day. As Pitts­burgh es­tab­lishes it­self as a tech hub, it’s also find­ing it­self at the fore­front of an evo­lu­tion likely to al­ter how just about ev­ery­one works — from the toll booth op­er­a­tor to the para­le­gal to the data an­a­lyst.

Au­to­ma­tion could dis­rupt 25% of the work­force — about 36 mil­lion jobs — in the next few decades, based on pre­dic­tions from a Jan­uary 2019 Brook­ings In­sti­tute study.

By 2030, 20 mil­lion man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs could be dis­placed by ro­bots, ac­cord­ing to a June study from Ox­ford Eco­nomics. Each new ro­bot in­stalled re­places an av­er­age of 1.6 work­ers, and 1.7 mil­lion jobs have al­ready been lost since 2000, the study re­ported.

The goal is to use tech­nol­ogy to make work bet­ter — to make jobs eas­ier and safer, to make em­ploy­ees’ tasks more stim­u­lat­ing and cre­ative, to make com­pa­nies more ef­fi­cient and pro­duc­tive.

But it could also leave some peo­ple be­hind.

“Com­pa­nies rec­og­nize that at the end of the day, the peo­ple within the com­pa­nies are core to what the com­pany does,” said An­thony Ga­di­ent, co-founder and ex­ec­u­tive vice chair­man of Voci Tech­nolo­gies, a com­pany in the Strip District work­ing on the soft­ware that could one day an­swer phone calls.

“A well-run com­pany is go­ing to make sure that they are in­vest­ing in their team to en­sure that as the tech­nol­ogy evolves that that team is evolv­ing as well,” he said. “Some com­pa­nies, un­for­tu­nately, aren’t well run. In those sit­u­a­tions, the change might be more trau­matic.”

Uni­ver­sally dis­rup­tive

The soft­ware from Voci Tech­nolo­gies, which Mr. Ga­di­ent de­scribed as a “com­puter buddy,” lis­tens along to a con­ver­sa­tion and searches for ways to as­sist, like sift­ing through a data­base for the an­swer to a ques­tion or find­ing prod­ucts to of­fer a cus­tomer.

Be­cause the tech­nol­ogy can un­der­stand the con­ver­sa­tion, rather than just pick­ing up on key words, it can learn as it lis­tens.

So, in some in­stances, the soft­ware could ac­tu­ally an­swer the call, Mr. Ga­di­ent said. But it’s still a long way off from replacing the hu­man in the call cen­ter.

“The re­al­ity is, the amount of in­tel­li­gence that is needed to­day, you can’t go very far with­out need­ing to talk to a hu­man,” he said.

That’s the way most tech­nol­ogy is set up — it is de­signed to per­form a spe­cific task. Jobs that fo­cus on things like bag­gage han­dling at air­ports, load­ing in­ven­tory in ware­houses or pre­par­ing food at restau­rants are likely to be among the first to go.

But tech­nol­ogy won’t dis­crim­i­nate in its dis­rup­tion of the work­force, based on find­ings from a Novem­ber Brook­ings In­sti­tute re­port.

It has been well-doc­u­mented that au­to­ma­tion will dis­rupt blue-col­lar work­ers with man­ual la­bor jobs, such as truck driv­ers or pick­ers in an as­sem­bly line. The new study found ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence will also af­fect white-col­lar work­ers with rou­tine tasks that could be repli­cated, like ra­di­ol­o­gists or com­puter spe­cial­ists.

The aug­mented worker

Har­bisonWalke­r In­ter­na­tional, a 150-year-old man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany based in Moon, has opted to try both forms of tech dis­rup­tion on its em­ploy­ees. So far, it’s worked.

The com­pany, which pro­duces re­frac­tory ma­te­ri­als, has made a point to in­vest in new tech­nolo­gies. Martha Collins, the chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer, said she even has one em­ployee who goes out to “scout” what is be­ing used in other in­dus­tries to get ideas.

In Oc­to­ber, the com­pany un­veiled a ro­bot called the Mule-R that helps in­stall its prod­ucts in cus­tomers’ plants. It makes the in­stal­la­tion process more ef­fi­cient — es­pe­cially im­por­tant in a steel mill, which can go through a re­frac­tory prod­uct in a mat­ter of hours.

HWI has also started us­ing al­go­rithms to main­tain data about its plants and cus­tomers. Be­cause the soft­ware does the heavy lift­ing, more em­ploy­ees are able to work with the num­bers with­out need­ing a back­ground in com­puter sci­ence or an­a­lyt­ics, Ms. Collins said.

The man­u­fac­turer opened a “highly au­to­mated” plant in Ohio in spring 2018, and Ms. Collins said they are al­ready see­ing “more through­put per worker.”

Over­all, em­ploy­ment has re­mained the same, she said. As ma­chines, soft­ware and au­to­mated plants are worked into the process, peo­ple are moved around to dif­fer­ent de­part­ments, a trend Ms. Collins pre­dicts will play out in many dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies.

“Peo­ple might not have to work as hard, which would be great,” she said. “I don’t think the num­ber [of em­ploy­ees] is go­ing to go down. I think the num­ber is go­ing to shift.”

Replacing Band-Aids with bots

That could be a wel­come change for some man­u­fac­tur­ing work­ers, said Stephen Catt, deputy di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion and work­force de­vel­op­ment at Ad­vanced Robotics for Man­u­fac­tur­ing, a na­tional re­search in­sti­tute based in Hazelwood.

Mr. Catt spent eight years work­ing on a fac­tory floor, a job that he said wasn’t sus­tain­able. Most of his old col­leagues now have health is­sues from walk­ing miles on ce­ment floors and rush­ing to meet dead­lines.

“Ev­ery­body talks about safety pro­to­cols, but if you’re ac­tu­ally go­ing to get your or­ders done on time, you can’t fol­low all of that. You just have to climb up like a mon­key, put some­thing on your shoul­der and jump down,” he said.

At ARM, Mr. Catt said they are work­ing to elim­i­nate bar­ri­ers pre­vent­ing com­pa­nies from keep­ing up.

A small busi­ness, for ex­am­ple, may not be able to spare a worker to com­plete a train­ing course be­cause they are re­spon­si­ble for 20% of the com­pany’s out­put. Or, a worker who is 50 years old may not have the mo­ti­va­tion to learn a new skill in the twi­light of their ca­reer.

“Ro­bots are tak­ing dull, dirty and dan­ger­ous jobs away from our work­ers and usu­ally those jobs are not jobs that any­body is go­ing to miss,” Mr. Catt said. “But we need to trans­fer that pas­sion and the will­ing­ness to work into th­ese new tech­nolo­gies so that ex­ist­ing work­ers can adapt read­ily.”

On the fac­tory floor, Doug Stan­ton, an en­gi­neer for ABB, is re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing sure peo­ple know how to use the au­to­ma­tion ma­chines he comes in to in­stall.

He al­ways gets a mixed re­sponse — some peo­ple are ea­ger to learn what the new ma­chine can do, while oth­ers are re­luc­tant to let go of the old ones. Many of those are so out­dated they are patched to­gether with “Band-Aids,” Mr. Stan­ton said.

Mostly peo­ple are ex­cited that it takes away some of the worst parts of their jobs.

“A lot of them look at it and say, ‘You mean I’m not go­ing to have to wedge this up and make it run ev­ery­day now?’” he said.

‘For ev­ery job they take, they make new ones’

Bossa Nova Robotics, based in the Strip District, said its cus­tomers treat the bot just like an em­ployee, go­ing so far as to give it a nametag.

The au­ton­o­mous ro­bots travel around a store tak­ing pic­tures of in­ven­tory and alert­ing em­ploy­ees when some­thing is amiss or run­ning low. It’s a prob­lem the re­searchers who de­vel­oped the tech didn’t know ex­isted un­til they went to re­tail­ers pitch­ing their new bot.

“They needed eyes on the shelf to know the real time state of the store,” said Sar­joun Skaff, co-founder and chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer at Bossa Nova. “They see it as a pro­duc­tiv­ity tool, much like the bar­code scan­ning gun used to be in the past . ... That is a per­fect uti­liza­tion for a ma­chine that has in­fi­nite pa­tience.

“This way we al­low peo­ple to do what they do best which is ma­nip­u­late prod­ucts and in­ter­face with cus­tomers.”

That is the ar­gu­ment many peo­ple make for why au­to­ma­tion is valu­able — it will free up time for hu­mans to fo­cus on more im­por­tant and more ex­cit­ing tasks.

It also opens up the pos­si­bil­ity for the cre­ation of new tasks no one has thought up yet.

Justin Starr, a pro­fes­sor of robotics at the Com­mu­nity Col­lege of Al­legheny County, sees de­mand grow­ing for peo­ple who know how to op­er­ate and main­tain a ro­bot but who don’t need to know how to build it.

“Peo­ple think ro­bots are com­ing to take jobs, and I think that’s true. I worry they’ll make a ro­bot pro­fes­sor one day,” Mr. Starr said. “But for ev­ery job they take, they make new ones, be­cause un­der­stand­ing how to work with th­ese sys­tems as th­ese sys­tems get ev­ery­where is just a huge de­mand.”

Be­fore go­ing into teach­ing, Mr. Starr worked at RedZone Robotics, a com­pany in Cran­berry that cre­ated ro­bots to in­spect sew­ers.

He said it did cross his mind that th­ese ma­chines could one day take some­one’s job, but the need to cre­ate some­thing that could more quickly iden­tify and rem­edy in­fra­struc­ture prob­lems out­weighed any guilty feel­ings.

“It didn’t make sense to fight the ro­bot,” he said of the peo­ple he trained. “They were com­ing whether they liked it or not, and there’s room for lots of peo­ple in that ecosys­tem.”

Slic­ing the ‘wealth pie’

At Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity, re­searchers are work­ing on il­lus­trat­ing a clearer pic­ture of what the work­force will look like through its Fu­ture of Work ini­tia­tive.

One project is test­ing how tech­nol­ogy per­forms as a tu­tor in el­e­men­tary schools. An­other is ex­am­in­ing the text of AI pa­tents to de­ter­mine the types of tasks de­vel­op­ers are tar­get­ing.

Re­sults are still pre­lim­i­nary, but Lee Branstet­ter, the head of the ini­tia­tive, said they al­ready show AI changes the types of work­ers com­pa­nies are look­ing to hire.

“It’s in­creas­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity, but, of course, that can be a dou­ble-edged sword — if firms can pro­duce a lot more with fewer work­ers, then that can have am­bigu­ous ef­fects on la­bor and de­mand,” he said.

The fact that in­no­va­tion grows the “wealth pie” through in­creased ef­fi­ciency is im­por­tant, said Tom Mitchell, a com­puter sci­ence pro­fes­sor at CMU who is also a part of the Fu­ture of Work Ini­tia­tive. But, if left unchecked, that pie will grow more and more un­equal on its own.

“AI gen­er­ates a big­ger wealth pie. Who could pos­si­bly be against that?” Mr. Mitchell said. “AI is also a force to­ward fur­ther skew­ing the distri­bu­tion of that wealth. Who could pos­si­bly be in fa­vor of that?”

“We’re re­ally kind of fly­ing blind into the fu­ture of jobs,” he said, adding that “we have a voice” in what the work­force will look like. “It’s not that tech­nol­ogy is this steam roller that’s go­ing to roll over us. We have some con­trol over what we do.”

Daniel Mar­sula/Post-Gazette

An­drew Rush/Post-Gazette

A ro­bot made by Bossa Nova Robotics checks in­ven­tory in a mockup Wal-Mart aisle at the com­pany's test lab on Novem­ber 3, 2017 in the Strip District.

Photo cour­tesy of Har­bisonWalke­r In­ter­na­tional

Har­bisonWalke­r In­ter­na­tional's Mule-R, which helps in­stall re­frac­tory prod­ucts.

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