19 Jul Robotics: Our biggest enemy isn’t the rise of the machines, it’s our inability to compete.
Machine & Man
In 2013 there was a study by Oxford University called “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?”. The researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne concluded that most management and finance occupations are safe for now, as are most jobs in all sectors of education. The health care professions are also relatively safe but never the less likely to be subject to considerable change. Safest of all are the creative roles in the arts and media.
The results of the study appears to suggest that to stay ahead of technology’s advance, we humans will have to acquire more creative, complex skills sets that are multi-layered. This will enable movement towards jobs involving much greater use of creativity and social intelligence, areas that robotics will still for some time have problems competing in.
Robots are not cheap to buy or maintain so perhaps we should be using new technologies to augment workers’ skills in many cases and not replacing them. NJMC was recently visiting a potential client who is looking to replace human welders with new robots. During this visit I learnt that robotic welding is by no means the complete solution because there are situations where human welders do a better job. The question that sprang to my mind was “Then why not have a mix of robotic and human welding?”. It was the wrong question as it turned out because the work I was there to be part of was a programme to find ways to still replace humans by improving the robots.
The company was very impressive, from the management team to the shop floor the staff they clearly know their industry. However during the three hours I was there I could not shake the idea that perhaps the better solution would be to make use of robotic welding where it works best, but also use humans where they work best. This would produce a mixed workforce where robots and people work side by side to:
- Achieve the highest quality.
- More flexible.
- Maintain the creative input of humans to aid product process improvement
During NJMC’s visit I learnt that the best human welders take a considerable time to train and then require more time to finely hone their skills. This also requires a sufficient and constant stream of incoming work which often peaks and throughs which can impact the rate of skill improvement. If, as I felt, this was the primary motivator behind an all robotic workforce there was a high risk of loosing creativity on the shop floor that can do so much to improve product quality. Could this be an area where using augmented and virtual reality in an artisan training programme could play a significant role in upskilling, even multiskilling staff, thus making them available to other areas of their workforce? Having a multi-skills set backed by human creativity is certainly an area where a human workforce can score over robotics.
Up-skill & Multi-skill
As much as new technologies could threaten workers jobs it can also allow workers to bypass many years of more formal academic study and develop workers who are multi-skilled and more agile, this has to be better to the national economy. Nowhere is this approach more appearent that at the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR). NSAR was established in November 2010 as a ‘not for profit’ company, wholly owned by its Members. NSAR is curently supporting the Rail Engineering Apprenticeship Employers Group (REAEG) in the development of new Apprenticeship Standards. These standards apply from skilled machine Operative to Masters Degree to make Rail Apprenticeships more flexible and agile to address future business needs of the rail industry and embrace the scale of technological and operational change faced by the this rapidly growing industry.
In UK there is too much focus on the possibility of workers being replaced with robots, it is resulting in too may people freezing and doing nothing. While technological advance does mean job losses, it also presents an opportunity for those who have skills deficits to progress to doing a wide(r) range of sophisticated tasks without spending years in traditional, and excessively expensive, training environments. What the future of the UK economy needs is more of the likes of NSAR and perhaps less of the legacy leviathan university courses. There is a terrific opportunity here for everyone to upskill, at accelerated rates, more cheaply by exploiting the very technologies we feel threatened by.
It is imperative for workers, ALL workers both blue and white collar, to upgrade their skills constantly to stay relevant. In doing so perhaps we can also blur those lines between the blue and white. We all have to re-think education and see it as a life-long evolutionary journey and to focus on acquiring transferable skills,
Our biggest enemy isn’t the rise of the machines, it’s our inability to compete with them – so let’s not compete, let’s compliment !
- National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR)
- The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?