Can we live without automation?

So there is a lot being said about automation and Industrie 4.0 (German spelling, because that’s where the idea originated) and the impact it will have.  In this post, let consider the alternative: what would happen if Automation would suddenly seize to exist?

The idea for this post came from a discussion with a Professor at the University of Pretoria.  We were discussing the impact of automation, the future of work and the need for an Automation Engineering qualification.

This thought was in line of documentaries looking at what would happen to earth if humans suddenly disappeared.  Here is a quick video on the matter:

Full disclaimer

This post is only backed by my own personal experience in the industrial automation space of South Africa.  Enough about that – here is what I think would happen if Automation ceases to exist in the world we live in today.

Automation is everywhere!

Although not many people are aware of all the automation in the world around them, believe me when I say it is literally EVERYWHERE!  From the microwave you use to heat the milk that you use for your breakfast or coffee to the machine that milks the cow for you to be able to have milk in the first place.

On your way to work, you may come across a few traffic lights that tell you when to stop and when to go – that is automated.  Also notice (depending on what time you go to work) the street lights being on the one moment, and off the next – that is automated based on some day/night switches.

If you work in a large building, the elevator is controlled automatically either by a stand alone system or a building management system – in either case, it is automated.

The fancy car you drive have all kinds of automation in it:

  • The climate control is an air conditioning system that regulates the temperature inside your vehicle.
  • You might use the cruise control if the traffic conditions allow for it.
  • self driving cars are also available, but not legal yet.
  • Some cars have automatic rain sensors and head lamps that switch on and off based on how light or dark it is.

The list goes on – see more in this post I did on LinkedIn: “Automation touched your breakfast“.

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First to fail

I think the first thing that would stop working are our power stations – keeping the boilers under control and within safe operating conditions can simply not be done safely and quickly enough by humans.  When the automation that keeps everything in check fails, your will very quickly see big chunks of metal flying around because the steam turbines will rip themselves apart very quickly.

From there on it’s pretty much downhill, because most other systems, factories and businesses rely on electricity to operate.

Many other manufacturing facilities that will soon grind to a halt or go up in glorious balls flames and smoke.  Examples are fuel refineries, mines, food and beverage manufacturers, water treatment plants and water distribution facilities.

The business processes that control and regulate all the millions of transactions that happen every day will cease to function.  Business will slow down or stop altogether.  Telecommunications will not work anymore (emails, mobile phones etc).

There are countless other examples of where automation exists in your immediate world, but I think you get the picture.

The need for automation

I can already hear people saying “bring it on”, “let it happen”, “we can survive without automation”!  Sure, many people could survive, and even thrive when things start to balance out, but I am whiling to bet (not a betting man in general) that there will potentially be huge loss of life!

Food supplies will diminish.  How so you ask?  Well the VAST amounts of food being harvested across the world depends a lot on automation for proper irrigation, for example.  The farmers of the world will simply not be able to supply enough produce for all the people in the world.

Jobs will actually decrease since loss of the capability to mass produce will cause factories to close down and people will have to start making things with manual labour again.

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Automation: the 3rd industrial revolution

We are currently experiencing the 4th industrial revolution – commonly referred to as Industrie 4.0 (pronounced “Industry 4 point oh”).

The 1st industrial revolution happened with the advent of steam and water powered mechanization.  Although it is true that a lot of jobs were destroyed by doing this, the up side is that at more than one other job was created.  Examples are engineers to maintain the machines and designers that needed to design the machines.

The 2nd industrial revolution occurred when mechanical power (steam and water) was ‘upgraded’ so to speak to electric power.  This enabled mass production.  Again – many people got DISPLACED from the jobs they were doing.  However, they got retrained to perform other, more fulfilling functions.  On average these new jobs were hire paying ones, with less repetition and greater job satisfaction.

Automation upgraded mass production and manufacturing facilities were basically put on steroids.  They could now produce at higher rates with more repeatable quality.  Once again people needed to learn new skills and enter into new jobs than they would’ve before.

The 4th Industrial Revolution

What is the 4th industrial revolution – or more accurately put, what technologies are bringing about the 4th industrial revolution?  In short the two biggest contributors are:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Interconnected (or cyber-physical) systems

Artificial Intelligence

This includes all matter of robotics, robotic process automation (RPA) and machine learning.  You can certainly find a lot of doom-and-gloom content around these topics.  In truth it is still just technology that has an off button.  All we need to do is to adapt – and learn to be in control of the technology that we use.  This may be an over simplification of the matter, but for me that’s the bottom line.

Just to clarify RPA (mentioned above) is not necessarily a machine with grippers and sensors in a manufacturing facility or a humanoid (Like Pepper robot).  RPA is back office automation like reading and analyzing website traffic and generating spreadsheet data from the analysis.

The thing to keep in mind here is that machines will always repeat our mistakes.  They can only learn from the data that exists digitally – ie, the information we feed it.  A machine will keep on repeating the same mistake we ‘program’ into it.

Interconnected (or cyber-physical) systems

The idea here is that machines are connected to the process it controls right down to the sensor that detects the level of product in a container, for example.  This machine is further more connected to the internet and is able to communicate with other machines and automated processes.

Through this capability a machine can:

  • learn more efficient ways of controlling a process.
  • notify operators/maintenance staff of impending problems and failures.
  • pre-order it’s own spare parts.
  • re calibrate a certain part of equipment further upstream if a process or product parameter starts drifting out of specification.

This is referred to the “Internet of things” (IoT) for commercial and IT related processes.   For industrial applications it is referred to as “Industrial Internet of Things” (IIoT).

Will automation take all our jobs?

I think not.  There are jobs that robots and machines simply cannot do.  These jobs or functions are the ones that require creativity and solving complex problems or anomalies (the exception to the rule).  Machines make decisions based on sets of rules rather than principles and ideas.

Here are some previous posts explaining more around this:

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