Welcome to the machine
Artificial intelligence is already changing the way we work. What does the future hold for this technology that once seemed the stuff of science fiction?
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The age-old argument against automation is that while it may save corporations money, it’s at the cost of people’s livelihoods. Entire factories are now filled with advanced robots assembling the cars, computers, and just about everything else we use each day, including things that used to be put together by human hands.
However, smart machines aren’t removing humans from the workforce at all, argues Buckley Brinkman, executive director/CEO of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity. Instead, they’re just changing the way we work.
“Every time new technology is introduced, the need for workers has increased rather than decreased.” — Buckley Brinkman
“I think that this technology could mean that we have fewer jobs in the economy going forward, but it would be the first time in history that technology created fewer jobs rather than more,” says Brinkman. “Go all the way back — every time new technology is introduced, the need for workers has increased rather than decreased. We’re arguing a bit of an historical issue. We’re arguing the last war rather than the next one. I think we’ve seen already the hollowing out of a lot of the middle class, mainly because there are very few ways that you can earn a family-supporting income with a strong back and a good alarm clock anymore. Instead, these jobs continue to evolve and if you aren’t keeping up with the curve of technology and how it applies on the factory floor, then you’re behind the game.”
Brinkman believes we already do a pretty good job of that in Wisconsin, notably because employers have begun to realize it’s not as easy as it was a decade ago to say, “Bill doesn’t have the skills anymore, so I’m going to get rid of him and hire Sue who does have them.” Bill may not have the skills, but Sue’s also not out looking for a job anymore, Brinkman notes. Companies are beginning to realize it’s a lot more cost effective to redeploy employees rather than cut them loose because there’s no one at the door to replace them.
“The companies that are looking ahead are definitely doing that,” explains Brinkman. “If you’re sitting there saying I’m bringing in this robot so that I can replace three workers and then cutting the workers loose, that’s a little bit short-sighted if you have a growing company. In fact, the leading-edge companies are actually using their employees to do the research on what technology to engage, where to engage it, and the investment model behind it — the ROI. I think that’s a pretty cool.”
With almost anything, Brinkman notes manufacturing is a little slower than the cutting-edge industries. Part of that is just because of the fragmented nature of the industry. Ninety-eight percent of the manufacturers in the country — almost 99 percent in Wisconsin — are small or medium sized, he notes, so it causes a couple of things.
“One is a lot of manufacturers just plain aren’t awake, they aren’t paying attention to what’s going on,” says Brinkman. “For the rest of them, they really have to get a ROI fairly quickly, so the investment that they make can be only relatively modest. That’s a serious obstacle. So, as you look at manufacturing across the country and in Wisconsin, the application of AI is really spotty.”
Brinkman is quick to point out that Wisconsin does have some spots where it’s doing a good job. “I think when you’re talking about leaders, you have to include Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation in that group. If you’re talking about the education side, what they’re starting to do at the Connected Systems Institute in Milwaukee is starting to push the front edge of that to bring it back into practical applications. But by and large, you’re talking about guys there who can throw a couple of million dollars at something, as opposed to a smaller manufacturer who may struggle to put $5,000 in. So, it’s uneven.”
One thing that could propel the entire manufacturing industry in Wisconsin forward is Foxconn. According to Brinkman, Foxconn is accelerating Wisconsin’s drive into the future. “When you’re talking about their strategy that aligns artificial intelligence — 8K visuals and the 5G capacity to carry all that data — that’s really one of the strong spines that not just manufacturing but society in the future is going to follow,” he states. “The thing that I get frustrated with about the discussions around Foxconn is the incredible focus on this factory and what’s going to be made there and how many people are going to be employed putting together screens. The bigger story is can we build an ecosystem in Wisconsin that really takes advantage of this new technology because it’s going to be the place where the next wave of computing happens.”
According to Brinkman, the next wave of computing will center on AI, or manipulating large amounts of data. “Manufacturing creates somewhere north of 90 percent of all data created,” says Brinkman. “There are a lot of experts who say the next wave of computing is going to take place on the manufacturing floor. If we look at Wisconsin’s base in manufacturing, combined with its other resources — education and research — we really have an opportunity to leapfrog to the front of the class in terms of being a state where people look to us to be leaders in this area.”
Looking forward several years, Brinkman sees plenty of opportunities to make that leap. “There will continue to be opportunities in manufacturing, and the connection that a lot of people still miss, especially in a community like Madison, is that technology is driven by manufacturing and not the other way around,” he notes. “Sixty-seven percent of all R&D in the U.S. is funded by manufacturing, so it’s a huge part of what happens in the tech world.
“Having said that, I think that by necessity there will not be a large growth in the number of people working in manufacturing, but the output will continue to grow just as it has in the past,” Brinkman adds. “The jobs will continue to evolve to those that require more expertise than just showing up. They will require some technical expertise, some computer expertise, and probably in a lot of cases, business knowledge.”
The companies that embrace the change are going to have a very bright future, Brinkman predicts. The companies that choose to keep their head in the sand are likely to be made obsolete by those that are moving forward. “Foxconn just catalyzes all of that,” he observes. “It was going to happen anyway, but with Foxconn in the picture it’s going to happen a lot faster.”
Working with AI
Most people are familiar with the concept of a “work spouse,” the co-worker/close friend who becomes a de facto significant other between the hours of 9 to 5. Is it so far-fetched to think that “person” could someday soon be synthetic rather than flesh and blood?
“Eventually we are going to see an ecosystem of voice assistants that is embedded within all our technology.” — Nick Myers
Nick Myers of RedFox Creative is working on a pet project that he believes will be ready for primetime this June 5 at the Disrupt Madison conference. In essence, Myers is building a custom Amazon Alexa skill/app that will allow Alexa to be a dynamic “co-host” and help announce speakers throughout the event, as well as offering information on Disrupt Madison and Disrupt Milwaukee. “At this time, there is a lot of supplemental information that will be needed in order or build what we want from the ground up,” Myers says, “but I am positive that we can have the skill designed, tested, and deployed by the time Disrupt Madison happens in June.”
Why is this a big deal? At the moment, there are four key voice assistants in the marketplace for both consumers and enterprise to use — Alexa, the Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana. Most people are familiar with Alexa and Google Assistant due to the widespread consumer adoption of each assistant, notes Myers, and both Amazon and Google’s aggressive marketing campaigns that have more or less targeted the everyday consumer.
Through RedFox Creative, Myers specializes in voice-first strategy and Alexa/Google Assistant skill design, development, and deployment for brands of all shapes and sizes. Essentially, RedFox operates on a Voice-as-a-Service (VaaS) model, taking care of everything for the client when it comes to voice (i.e., design, development, testing, deployment, and maintenance). RedFox also specializes in helping organizations optimize their web content and content marketing strategy for voice search offering consulting and optimization services. “It is critical that businesses start thinking about how they can best start doing this, as by 2020 more than 50 percent of all search will be done via voice,” explains Myers.
Myers isn’t being hyperbolic when he says the overall the market for AI and voice is infinite. “Every person and every industry will be impacted by it in some way,” he predicts. “We are already starting to see some great case studies of brands that have begun to leverage the technology to connect with their customers, and the positive results that they are seeing. Butterball, Tide, Pizza Hut, Xbox, and even Culver’s right here in Wisconsin have a presence on voice and are beginning to see the shift in how their customers engage with them and search for information.
“Eventually we are going to see an ecosystem of voice assistants that is embedded within all our technology — TVs, appliances, cars, etc. — that helps make carrying out simple day-to-day tasks almost seamless, allowing us to focus on other things.”
However, in 2019, Myers believes the difficulty in making this technology truly functional for brands isn’t so much the technology itself, but how businesses can leverage an ROI from being present on it.
“I ask people all the time, would you have invested more in mobile back in the late 2000s? Almost everyone says yes,” notes Myers. “The same can be said for voice. It always has and always will be about reaching people and generating experiences where they spend most of their time. As we head into the next decade, I am 100 percent confident that voice will become one of those primary spaces. Overall, I am welcoming our new robot overlords with open arms.”
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