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Human In The Machine

The Human in the Machine

Feb. 13, 2020
21st-century manufacturers will soon embrace operating models that more closely resemble data-driven, global software platforms than physical factories. Where do people fit in?

Part of the series 2070: A Manufacturing Odyssey

One of the critical issues for the next 50 years in manufacturing is how the relationship between humans and machines evolves. The first Industrial Revolution did more than just change the way we make things; it profoundly transformed the nature of work and set the stage for a violent re-shaping of society.

We are still in the early days of the AI era, but soon, 21st-century manufacturers will embrace operating models that more closely resemble data-driven, global software platforms than physical factories. What is yet to be determined is where people fit into all of this. Amazon, for example, has received two patents for a wristband designed to guide warehouse workers’ movements with the use of vibrations to nudge them into being more efficient. There are two paths before us—one in which we augment and elevate human capabilities, and another, where we revive Taylorist principles and start monitoring and instrumenting people as part of automated processes.

Education and retraining are the keys to a stable, AI-driven society. The alternative is a future in which a class-based divide opens up between the masses who have some kind of algorithm as their boss (think of Uber drivers, Rappi couriers or TaskRabbit workers), a privileged professional class who have the skills and capabilities to design and train algorithmic systems, and a tiny aristocratic class of the ultra-wealthy, fortunate enough to own algorithmic platforms. That, like last time around, is a recipe for global revolution.

Walsh is the author of The Algorithmic Leader: How to Be Smart When Machines Are Smarter Than You. Walsh is the CEO of Tomorrow, a global consultancy on designing companies for the 21st century.

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