Does the next industrial revolution spell the end of manufacturing jobs?

July 19, 2017 by Jeff Morgan, The Conversation, The Conversation
Credit: Shutterstock

Robots have been taking our jobs since the 1960s. So why are politicians and business leaders only now becoming so worried about robots causing mass unemployment?

It comes down to the question of what a robot really is. While science fiction has often portrayed robots as androids carrying out tasks in the much the same way as humans, the reality is that robots take much more specialised forms. Traditional 20th century robots were automated machines and robotic arms building cars in factories. Commercial 21st century robots are supermarket self-checkouts, automated guided warehouse vehicles, and even burger-flipping machines in fast-food restaurants.

Ultimately, humans haven't become completely redundant because these robots may be very efficient but they're also kind of dumb. They do not think, they just act, in very accurate but very limited ways. Humans are still needed to work around robots, doing the jobs the machines can't and fixing them when they get stuck. But this is all set to change thanks to a new wave of smarter, better value machines that can adapt to multiple tasks. This change will be so significant that it will create a new industrial revolution.

Industry 4.0

This era of "Industry 4.0" is being driven by the same technological advances that enable the capabilities of the smartphones in our pockets. It is a mix of low-cost and high-power computers, high-speed communication and . This will produce smarter robots with better sensing and communication abilities that can adapt to different tasks, and even coordinate their work to meet demand without the input of humans.

In the manufacturing industry, where robots have arguably made the most headway of any sector, this will mean a dramatic shift from centralised to decentralised collaborative production. Traditional robots focused on single, fixed, high-speed operations and required a highly skilled workforce to operate and maintain them. Industry 4.0 machines are flexible, collaborative and can operate more independently, which ultimately removes the need for a highly skilled workforce.

Does the next industrial revolution spell the end of manufacturing jobs?
The fourth industrial revolution. Credit: Christoph Roser, CC BY-SA

For large-scale manufacturers, Industry 4.0 means their robots will be able to sense their environment and communicate in an industrial network that can be run and monitored remotely. Each machine will produce large amounts of data that can be collectively studied using what is known as "big data" analysis. This will help identify ways to improve operating performance and production quality across the whole plant, for example by better predicting when maintenance is needed and automatically scheduling it.

For small-to-medium manufacturing businesses, Industry 4.0 will make it cheaper and easier to use robots. It will create machines that can be reconfigured to perform multiple jobs and adjusted to work on a more diverse product range and different production volumes. This sector is already beginning to benefit from reconfigurable robots designed to collaborate with human workers and analyse their own work to look for improvements, such as BAXTER, SR-TEX and CareSelect.

While these machines are getting smarter, they are still not as smart as us. Today's industrial artificial intelligence operates at a narrow level, which gives the appearance of human intelligence exhibited by machines, but designed by humans.

What's coming next is known as "deep learning". Similar to , it involves processing large quantities of data in real time to make decisions about what is the best action to take. The difference is that the machine learns from the data so it can improve its decision making. A perfect example of was demonstrated by Google's AlphaGo software, which taught itself to beat the world's greatest Go players.

The turning point in applying artificial intelligence to manufacturing could come with the application of special microchips called graphical processing units (GPUs). These enable deep learning to be applied to extremely large data sets at extremely fast speeds. But there is still some way to go and big industrial companies are recruiting vast numbers of scientists to further develop the technology.

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Impact on industry

As Industry 4.0 technology becomes smarter and more widely available, manufacturers of any size will be able to deploy cost-effective, multipurpose and collaborative as standard. This will lead to industrial growth and market competitiveness, with a greater understanding of production processes leading to new high-quality products and digital services.

Exactly what impact a smarter robotic workforce with the potential to operate on its own will have on the manufacturing , is still widely disputed. Artificial intelligence as we know it from is still in its infancy. It could well be the 22nd century before robots really have the potential to make human labour obsolete by developing not just deep learning but true artificial understanding that mimics human thinking.

Ideally, Industry 4.0 will enable human workers to achieve more in their jobs by removing repetitive tasks and giving them better robotic tools. In theory, this would allow us humans to focus more on business development, creativity and science, which it would be much harder for any to do. Technology that has made humans redundant in the past has forced us to adapt, generally with more education.

But because Industry 4.0 robots will be able to operate largely on their own, we might see much greater human redundancy from manufacturing jobs without other sectors being able to create enough new work. Then we might see more political moves to protect human labour, such as taxing robots.

Again, in an ideal scenario, humans may be able to focus on doing the things that make us human, perhaps fuelled by a basic income generated from robotic work. Ultimately, it will be up to us to define whether the robotic workforce will work for us, with us, or against us.

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antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Jul 19, 2017
The turning point in applying artificial intelligence to manufacturing could come with the application of special microchips called graphical processing units (GPUs)

GPUs have been around for about 20 years (they're in every graphics card card). GPUs don't enable AI. They allow for massive parallelization of some tasks (which can speed up AI applications) - but they aren't required. You can run an AI just as well on a CPU.

Artificial intelligence as we know it from science fiction is still in its infancy. It could well be the 22nd century before robots really have the potential to make human labour obsolete by developing not just deep learning but true artificial understanding that mimics human thinking.

Here's my prediction: By the 22nd century robots (for manufacturing) will be obsolete. We'll print anything from the ground up at a molecular/atomic level. The entire concept of 'assembly' will become an anachronism.
rderkis
5 / 5 (2) Jul 19, 2017
Interesting. It would be neat watching a movie like the one above building cars but instead of building cars, building robots like themselves,
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 19, 2017
Re the vid, its cool how they share tools.

"Each machine will produce large amounts of data that can be collectively studied using what is known as "big data" analysis. This will help identify ways to improve operating performance and production quality across the whole plant..."

-It will also enable us to determine exactly what they are worth to the whole process, and how much they ought to be PAID DIRECTLY for the work they do.

Wage-earning robots can pay for their own insurance, upkeep and replacement. But most importantly it allows them to be taxes immediately for the work they do. This will increase revenue enormously and enable the support of all the hordes of workers replaced by them.

Machine emancipation is inevitable. If robots do all the work can we trust human owners to pay their fair share of taxes? Of course not.
SkyAbove
5 / 5 (2) Jul 19, 2017
From working with automation for 30 years, I believe in just 5 years we will see great advances in nanotechnology, 3D printing, and intelligent machines. The AI, nanotechnology and 3D printing will evolve and merge into Hans Moravec's bush robots: fractal branching ultra-dexterous robots. These could assemble or disassemble anything at high-speed and with atomic precision. That will be the true end of work and capitalism. I believe it less than ten years away.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Jul 19, 2017
I believe in just 5 years we will see great advances in nanotechnology, 3D printing, and intelligent machines.

Well, I worked in research groups doing 3D printing fundamentals (2000-2004), some innovative companies using 3D printing just a couple years ago and also resaerch groups in the fields of micromanipulators and mictrorobotics.

I believe it less than ten years away.

I'm pretty sure we'll see cool advances in the next 10 years, but youre vastly, VASTLY underestimating the time it takes for these to come to market (and we are nowhere near the bush robot technology - even on the research front. there's not even a research project I'm aware of thinking of starting in on this)

10 years? By then we'll have 2 generations of smartphones and possibly the second generation of EVs. Maybe. But that's about the speed of development you can expect.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jul 20, 2017
Well, I worked in research groups doing 3D printing fundamentals

Sorry..that should read:
"worked in projects with research groups doing 3D printing..."
I was not in those particular groups in the relevant projects.

Point being: having had the opportunity to see where the very frontier of research is at in those areas and how fast it has progressed over the years since I think I can get a good feeling about what will and won't be possible within the short term (5-10 years).
greenonions1
3 / 5 (2) Jul 20, 2017
Great article. It is going to take a huge shift in our culture. Here in the U.S. - we have a huge portion of our population - living in grinding poverty. The education system is failing. These folks work in soul destroying jobs. Just for example - humping boxes for companies like UPS - earning $10 an hour - for 3 to 5 hours a day - destroying your health - in an industrial work environment with no heat or A/C. Could be 10 degrees, or 110 degrees inside the trucks. Of course robots can hump the boxes - but we have to think hard about the displaced workers. It is going to take a radical re-think of our whole culture. It will need a political system that is creative, and compassionate. I don't have much hope - with the current team of narcissistic sociopaths running things. Time will tell.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Jul 20, 2017
I don't think the narcissism is so much the problem - it's more the personal, economic interests of those in political power to keep the system the way it is.

Consider: More than 50% of the members of Congress are millionaires (about 50 or so quite a bit "multi-multi"). Whether that is a sensible *representation* of the 'American people' is...erm...you be the judge.
(To understand the vast discrepancy involved, here: Median net worth of a member of Congress is about 20 times that of americans in general...that's quite a few standard deviations off the mean.)
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jul 20, 2017
Well, I worked in research groups doing 3D printing fundamentals (2000-2004), some innovative companies using 3D printing just a couple years ago and also resaerch groups in the fields of micromanipulators and mictrorobotics
Uh - who cares?

"argumentum ad verecundiam is a form of defeasible argument in which expert opinion supports the argument's conclusion. It is well known as a fallacy, though it is most often used in a cogent form."

-always sad.

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