Robin Robbins' Blog

October 15, 2009

Automation Nation

Filed under: general,Rant — Robin Robbins @ 3:35 pm

The growing need for us to make machines do our dirty work seems to hit an all time high.
Recently I stepped into a Jack N the Box for a cheap meal, in front of the registers there was Ki. Mr Osk told me he was fast, friendly and easy to use. So I touched him. A brief conversation later he spit out a receipt and a person gave me my drink cup and minutes later my food.
Who is this Ki Osk? Well in a nutshell it is where we have evolved as humans.

There are radio stations that can run overnight without anyone around. There was a time that I remember where I would actually use records on a turn table, YES kiddos, a turn table, the term scratchin’ came from the DJ actually scratching the record on the air. We would even use the record to “Sample Sounds” by using the turn table and our fingers to move the record back and forth on the sound we wanted. This is a far cry from today’s DJs, even though they still mimic the scratching motions.

It kind of makes me wonder how the Jack N the Box employees feel when the manager decides to cut shifts because the Kiosk will work perfectly instead of a human.

Does it make you feel any safer that when you step into an airplane, that the pilots are really not flying the plane? In Fact today’s airplanes can take off by themselves and land by themselves. The reality is that pilots are really there “JUST IN CASE”. One case study indicates that 65% to 80% of air transport accidents are attributable in whole part to human error, and this has been a relatively stable number. It is in these accidents and incidents that the cause may be a failure to understand the automation behavior or an inability to understand the choice of operating modes. What ever the cause, having the human fly the aircraft is seemingly more frightening.

Human VS Machine. There has been several science fiction stories with this subject matter, some that come to mind are Mary Shelly, L Frank Baum, or even Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale”. These books have wondrous tales of man creating machines to ease the burden of life. From the beginning of time when we enslaved races to do our dirty work, eventually we grew up, making animals grind our grains, and continuing on to automate even more with windmills and such.

Technology is our age. It’s the future. Combining communication with computers creates a world of infinite possibilities for us and our toys. It is amazing that we can have our automobile call our house to make sure dinner starts in enough time, putting into calculation our GPS Navigation’s system recommendation on our arrival based on current traffic conditions.

So what do we automate and what is too far?
One answer to the question is “everything that can be automated.” One climbs the mountain because it
is there. One automates because it is possible to do so.
The immediate need would be to minimize Human error. Provide specific tasks that have the exact outcome with every time they are conducted. Computers and robotics will almost insure that this can be achieved.

We have always been fearful of letting automation take our jobs away, as the robots and computers will by far do a more accurate and consistent job. Ford motors found this out when they started to automate the floor of their motors production plants. The UAW had concerns about their workers during this process and noticed a change in the environment. What followed was a total reconstruction of the working class roles in Ford’s plants. There were three obvious tiers of skill sets. The first was the unskilled workers, broom pushers as they were called. The jobs performed by the unskilled worker did not seem to constitute a automated process. Their jobs were not in jeopardy because no one considered their jobs worth the effort.
The second group was the exact opposite, the skilled workers. These workers were also in the position of having no automation plans, their skills involved designing, constructing and programming the machines.
It was the last group of workers that were affected. The semiskilled workers operated the machinery and assembled the motors. These workers could now focus on learning the skilled workers job duties, thus becoming skilled workers.
This caused a new definition of the skilled worker. There were about 21% of skilled workers in the plants as compared to 5% of skilled workers in a non-automated plant.

We can rest assured that automating tasks will sound scary at first, but in the long run it will give us more time to do a better job as a human. Being human could be a good thing for us.

BTW, in the Jack N the Box where I met Mr. Ki Osk, the people were friendly and attentive. The drive through seemed to run quickly and someone actually talked to me, cleaned my table and made several checks on me to make sure that I was having a pleasurable experience. I guess Mr Ki Osk gave the human element more time to spend on being human and it gave everyone the warm and fuzzy.


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