3 Questions: How can automation and good functionality coexist | MIT News

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In 2018, MIT convened the Future Work Task Force, which concluded in its 2020 report that while new technologies won’t necessarily eliminate employment significantly, smart practices and policies will be necessary to allow automation to supplement good jobs. Today, a successor group continues the task force’s efforts: the Futures Action Initiative, which is co-directed by Julie Shah, H.N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Space at MIT, and Ben Armstrong, executive director and research scientist at MIT for Industrial Performance. center.

The Future Work Initiative conducts on-site research into manufacturing companies and generates collaborative work on campus. Meanwhile, recently Harvard Business Review In the article, Shah and Armstrong outline their vision of “bottom line automation” in manufacturing, where robots and automation coexist with worker-driven inputs, rather than eliminating workers. They talked with MIT News about their thoughts.

s: Let’s start with your perspective on how technologies and workers can complement each other. What is “positive sum automation”, this basic idea of ​​\u200b\u200bthe work of the Future Initiative?

Ben Armstrong: One thing that Julie and I have noticed from visiting factories and studying manufacturers, and that Julie has noticed from her work developing robotics technologies, is the trade-off between productivity advancement, which is often the goal of automation and agility. As companies become more productive in repetitive operations, they often lose flexibility. Changing production processes or making adjustments to workers becomes more expensive, even at the level of the work environment. In short, “zero automation” is a trade-off, while “positive sum automation” uses different technology designs and strategy to gain both throughput and flexibility.

This is not only important to the company’s performance, but to the workers. In fact, a lot of companies adopting robots are hiring more workers. It is an open question whether or not these functions will improve. So, by promoting flexibility as part of the automation process, it can be better for workers, including more worker input.

Julie Shah: I’ve developed AI-enabled robots and worked for most of my career in manufacturing, trying to beat this paradigm where you can choose between either a human doing the task or a robot doing the task, which is by definition zero. It takes a very intentional effort to shape the technology to make resilient systems that improve productivity.

s: How often do companies not realize that automation can lead to this kind of trade-off?

Shah: Error almost everywhere. But as we toured companies for our research, we saw that companies that have successfully embraced and expanded their use of bots have a very different mindset. The traditional way that you think about labor displacement is, if I put this bot in, I take this person out. We were in a factory where a worker was supervising multiple robots, and he said, “Because my job is getting easier, I can now share times between multiple machines, and instead of being crazy busy, I can spend 20 percent of my time thinking about how to make all of this better.” The learning curve of the factory is driven by people and their ability to innovate.

Armstrong: It is sometimes difficult to measure the impact of technology before it is deployed. You never really know the hidden costs or benefits that may come up. If workers spend time more creatively on problem-solving, it becomes an ultimate benefit. In healthcare, for example, automating administrative tasks may encounter resistance, but in our interviews, workers talk about how they can now focus on the more interesting parts of their jobs, so we see a good result for workers and probably also good for continuous improvement in these companies.

concentration [Harvard Business Review] The piece was hardware technologies, but companies can get very creative with how they connect the front office software used to sell their products to the software that controls their hardware. Another piece that I’ve been interested in is logistics and warehousing, which in some ways has seen much greater developments in robotics and automation, and where there’s a lot of potential to improve the quality of jobs for people.

s: In its current incarnation, what does the work of the Future Initiative consist of?

Shah: Future Work has what we call the Automation Clinic, where we bring researchers and students into companies in the manufacturing space, to look at how companies are getting out of their zero-option options and to showcase these success stories. But the initiative is broader than that. There are basic research efforts and other ways in which we engage faculty and research staff across the institute.

Armstrong: We are developing an open library of case studies, and are always looking for new places to visit and new industry partners to learn from. We are looking for more structured opportunities for campus discussions. Future Action is not a closed community, and we’d very much like to reach out to the folks at MIT. It is exciting and challenging for the people who run a robotics lab to work with social scientists. It happens at MIT but it may not happen elsewhere. We’re trying to stimulate more collaboration between people who look at the same questions in different ways.

Shah: When the Work of the Future team started in 2018, there were billboards on I-90 telling people it’s best to retire now. [due to robots]. But what is happening is more subtle. There are all these different potential futures as these technologies are deployed. It is a large, long-term research agenda to ask which organizational decisions produce positive outcomes for companies and workers. I think that’s very motivating for the people doing the engineering work, and it involves broad participation, and that’s what we’re aiming for.