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Drones and Other Automatons: How Far Should Society Go?

Posted By David Brousell, December 16, 2013 at 3:04 PM, in Category: Manufacturing Advocacy

After reading my colleague Paul Tate’s recent post on how drones may revolutionize manufacturing logistics, I got to thinking about the subject of automation in general and its effect on society, on work, and on people – and what the future may look like.

It’s not that I haven’t thought about this subject before. As editor-in-chief of Managing Automation Magazine from 1998 to 2011, I had considerable opportunity to think and write about this subject within the context of manufacturing. Even during those few years – relatively few, really, in industrial history -- automation, writ large, changed dramatically as technology spread from the back office to nearly every function in the manufacturing enterprise and beyond. Today, as technological change accelerates, the vision of highly automated and connected factories and plants is commonplace, the rule rather than any exceptional vision of the future.

Perhaps most significantly, however, it is a future state where new forms of automation – everything from drones delivering packages, the subject of Tate’s post, to robots capable of running faster than even Usain Bolt, the Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter dash – will take over many jobs and tasks performed today by people.

The question that we, as an industry and as a society, need to ask is: Should there be a limit to how much we automate?

It would be easy to construct a historically-based argument that holds there never has been and never will be such a limit. Technological advancement has always changed the dynamics of the workplace and the workforce, and, in most cases, for the better. Technological advancement has always resulted in a lower value being placed on menial or repetitive tasks, raising skill requirements for existing jobs and even creating new jobs. Automation has sped up the manufacturing process and has made it more efficient. And anything that changes the economic equation usually becomes irresistible.

On the other hand, we need to think about people. As a society, everyone needs rewarding work to perform. A conundrum of the current economic recovery is a soaring stock market, an improving housing market, and solid corporate profits on the one hand, and stubbornly high unemployment on the other hand.

Is automation contributing to unemployment? Should we be concerned about the future effects of accelerating automation on national employment? Should we place limits or draw the line on what types of jobs will not be given to machines so human beings can continue to perform them?

Or should we just have faith that the immutable laws of the marketplace will create a new equilibrium, one that demands and balances evolution and advancement with basic human needs?

I’ve often said that the history of the 20th century is one of industrialization – of not only manufacturing, but also of many other dimensions of society and life such as science, medicine, art, education, and war. But nature somehow finds its balance.

Even as we have industrialized so much, greater value has been assigned to that which has not been industrialized. Think organic foods, independent films, custom products built just for you, and the worth of the individual human being as the world becomes more connected and more aware.

So, as we proceed into that inexorably more technological future, I’m confident that industry and society will find its yin-yang yet again – even if we do end up dancing with robots at the annual Fourth of July picnic.

What’s your view of automation and society? Has automation gone too far, not far enough?

Written by David Brousell

Global Vice President, General Manager and Editorial Director of the Manufacturing Leadership Council

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