Is the world ready for the consequences of rapid automation? Will the use of robots displace entire categories of workers? Can artificial intelligence really “think”? How will manufacturing, including PCB manufacturing, be affected by all of these smart robots?
These may sound like thoroughly 21st-century questions, but they actually come from a pamphlet published in 1955. In The Age of Automation: Its Effects on Human Welfare, intrepid industrial reporter Warner Bloomberg Jr. wrote about the emergence of robotics in a post-war economy. The parallels to today are striking.
First, there’s the media frenzy. Bloomberg alludes to the “hundreds of articles” that either warn that robotics will “lead to massive unemployment” or proclaim that the technology “will usher in a new ‘golden age’ of plenty.” There’s also the disconnect between CEOs and their frontline factory employees. “See how easy it is to make gasoline?” an oil executive remarks about his refinery’s new-fangled automatic control system. “You just put the crude oil in at one end, and the gasoline comes out the other!” His ill-conceived “joke” manages to not only disparage his workforce but betray his poor understanding of the technology.
Further, there are the “smart” machines that obfuscate their critical human elements. Bloomberg mentions a state-of-the-art computer that can translate several sentences of Russian into English “in a few seconds”—that is, “after months of time put in by human experts ‘programming’ the operation.” Next, there are alarms of imminent, unimaginably vast catastrophe. One automation doomsayer Bloomberg quoted believed “the unemployment it causes will be, given our present frame of economic thought, very large, permanent, and absolutely unprecedented.”
This was all in the ‘50s. While robotics and other forms of automation have undergone significant evolution since then—within and beyond circuit board manufacturing—our general attitudes have not.
A Robot Is a Robot Is a Robot
What do hazardous materials inspection, automotive welding, and bowling alley pinsetting all have in common? All are monotonous, dangerous jobs—and ideal for automation.
In the debate over worker displacement, people seldom mention how automation has improved worker well-being. Robots perform numerous jobs that otherwise pose health and safety risks, whether it’s a major risk, such as toxic fumes, or a minor one, such as repetitive muscle strain. In these and virtually all practical applications of robotics, a human being is still monitoring, controlling, or programming the machine.
To read this entire column, which appeared in the June 2019 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.