Technology moves fast. These are the years of questions. One amongst all of them: “But will process automation wipe out jobs?” No, but it will transform them and we must be ready for change.
Guido Jouret, chief digital officer of ABB, a leading company in the technological sector at the forefront of electricity networks, electrification products, industrial automation, robotics and motion control, operating in over 100 countries with around 147,000 employees, explains why we must not demonize process automation and artificial intelligence, but rather turn them into everyday concepts that do not destroy jobs but rather increase their potential.
If you were to explain to the layman what automation is, what example would you make?
Let’s make a premise: automation doesn’t just mean “robot”. People think that the robot is the clearest example, but in fact we have been working for a long time on the concept of automation. We talk about automation when three elements come into play:
perception, analysis, action. And to close this loop, this circle uses digital technologies. So the sensors perceive and first of all convert temperature, vibrations and some elements of the physical world into digital representations. The analysis phase, on the other hand, today is mostly carried out by softwares that apply certain rules (if the temperature is too high, open this valve – if this happens, follow these instructions). And this can be seen above all applied to plants: chemical, water, and in factories. So really, unless you work in a plant factory, what you're seeing about isn’t automation yet. The last part is then the action, or how digital instruction is transformed into a physical action (turn on and off the engines), and this is the most common form of automation today. Robots are currently only a small part of automation, but a big part of tomorrow’s.
How do automation processes affect the life of the company?An automation process produces more or less everything we use as a service, be it water, electricity or even food. If we consider, for example, a grain of wheat, or any part of something that we want to eat but that must be separated from the rest, that division takes place through the use of automation technologies. Also most of the things produced in the factory are made through automation: as consumers we see automation only in the final part, we do not interact with the automation itself.
As consumers we see the automation only in the final part, not interacted with the automation itself
What decades do you define as essential for the development of these processes over the course of history?
All industrial revolutions. Think of the first one, when “parts of the body started to be replaced with steel”. In the sense that we started to move on trains, to build tools that allowed us to lift, move or shift things that were too heavy before. The second revolution occurred when we switched to electric models. An engine, especially an electric motor, can be very small and can be installed in many places. So this has allowed us to exploit the potential of electricity much more. The third industrial revolution took place when we began to introduce this concept of computer automation technology. Computers in factories, computers that have become a part of this “sense, analyze and act”; they would have controlled the machines, deciding how to cut, prepare the machinery and the ingredients. But the fourth revolution is happening right now: let’s think about common computers, they work when we give them explicit instructions “do this, do that”. In the fourth industrial revolution, however, we also experience new types of computers, implemented by artificial intelligence, and this means that for the first time not only can they follow instructions, but they can also learn and adapt. They can therefore say: “I will automatically make the best decision, based on better efficiency, production or safety”. And this is new. This means that in the future many more decisions will be taken by assisted intelligence fed by Artificial Intelligence.
Every job, every profession, in some parts will be helped and assisted by technology and will make us more productive
Automation in ten years. In what fields will it be most used?
I think we will see many tasks and jobs being automated; not all jobs will necessarily disappear, but we will see that parts of people's work will be replaced or assisted by technology. The first example that comes to mind is customer service: when we call the customer service line of a company, the first thing we hear is a computer. And we speak with this voice, and in some cases we also receive the help we need, without ever having spoken to a real person. Let's take another example: health care. What do doctors provide? A diagnosis, and they prescribe and check if the medication works. Diagnoses and evaluations of the effectiveness of all this can also be made by computers. The computer can say: “you have a fever, take this; you might have yellow fever, change medicine”. But the medical staff will always be involved in everything. Why? Because the computer could prescribe medicines to an elderly person, but the real reason why that person went to the doctor may not be fever but simply the fear of being alone, and the desire to be reassured. And obviously artificial intelligence can't know this, you have to be a person to understand it. Another example concerns the profession of lawyers: much of what lawyers do is the search for previous information.
Every time they have to look for something they go to Google, and they only do a search by typing keys. But first, someone had to be delegated to the legal department to find similar books or previous cases. Now you can have a computer that also gives you a summary, reading hundreds of pages and producing just two summaries. Has this cut out the lawyer? No, it has only facilitated the work. What I mean is that I think that every job, every profession, in some parts will be helped and assisted through technology and will make us more productive.