An unchecked rise in automation could equal a decrease in quality of life.
They say that the more things change the more they stay the same. Sometimes, perhaps, but not all the time – especially when people are involved.
For ages, people have strived for a good lifestyle. In ancient times, simply surviving – literally – might have been the definition of a good lifestyle. Over time, the definition has pivoted, influenced by the times in which people were living. For over a hundred years, people took both the short- and long-term view when defining their lifestyle. Short term, the idea was to have a good job, one that paid as well as possible, provided upward potential for both compensation and responsibility while also offering a level of stability, so one did not have to worry every day, week or month "if" they would have that job.
Most in our industry entered it because they saw a potential for growth – personal growth, as well as growth for the organization with which they were working. Most also started in an entry-level position and through hard work, observation and learning, could either become an expert in the area or on the equipment/process they operate, or be promoted to managing process, people or both. And while living in this short-term lifestyle called a career, people also built a life that in the long term provided a comfortable and happy environment for themselves and their family. Some call this the American dream, but I view it as a global vision, one shared by citizens around the world.
The next generation coming along, however, seems to have a different interpretation of a good lifestyle. Possibly because of technology, or the changing world environment, the definition of a good lifestyle appears to be once again pivoting – and not so slightly.
A new generation is taking the stage that appears to value flexibility over stability, spontaneity over money and short-term gratification over a long-term career. The next generation appears less interested in committing to a career but rather favoring one-time, short-term gigs that, when they tire of it, can be exchanged like commodities. Flexibility, not commitment, is becoming the new definition of a good lifestyle.
On one level, that pivot is not an issue. Every generation redefines its own norm and every previous generation grumbles about the loss of "the good old days." With a variety of convergent technologies either already here or on the cusp of becoming reality, however, as the definition of a good lifestyle pivots, we may all need to pause and determine if that pivot may end up resulting in an unintended result of people not having any quality lifestyle!
Throughout the manufacturing industry as well as in service businesses, locating, recruiting, hiring and retaining employees – especially good employees – is incredibly difficult. Much has been written about companies everywhere seeing growth restrained simply because they cannot hire enough people. Compounding this labor shortage is the unprecedented number of the baby boomer generation at or approaching retirement. Hiring for growth is one thing, but also hiring to replace doubles the challenge and dramatically shortens the time businesses have to fill the growing gap.
In most industries, automation is looked upon as a possible savior to fill the labor gap. If enough "simple" tasks can be automated, then machines can replace people and relieve some of the burden of finding employees. This strategy has worked in the past and is applied throughout manufacturing and especially in our industry: producing advanced technology.
What may be a game-changer, and not necessarily in the best way, is the potential that artificial intelligence might offer as a replacement for people. For too many people, when they think of AI, they imagine a robot walking through a grocery store or possibly a software logarithm that enables quick answers when contacting a call center for information.
But what if the AI employed in manufacturing eliminates people operating equipment or producing product? What if the only jobs available for masses of people are manual labor or simplistic tasks that do not require experience or skill? Having a good lifestyle when there is no way to earn a reasonable income may not be possible. There will always be some who aspire to push themselves to get ahead, become competent and knowledgeable, and apply that to being successful in their field, business, and industry. But there are still others who might second-guess the strategy of living day-to-day by taking on a short-term gig versus committing to a long-term life plan.
For all, and especially the next generation coming along, we, together, need to make the effort to understand what can – and cannot – be done as well or better by both people and automation. If automation, and eventually AI, is implemented in the appropriate environments to perform tasks it is better suited to handle, everyone will be able to aspire to enjoy a good lifestyle. But if automation is utilized simply because of a perception that people are not dependable nor willing to commit to continual learning and contributing to the common success of the organization they are working for, then that lifestyle may not be good!
While everyone wants to live the best lifestyle they possibly can, and each generation transitions to their own "normal," the dawning of the next generation of automation called AI behooves readers to think wisely about what they want the future to look like.
is president of FTG Circuits Haverhill; (imipcb.com); firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears monthly.
PCB West, Engineering Tomorrow’s Electronics / September 19-22, 2023