Several years ago I began telling my children that I thought the greatest challenge for their generation was sensibly integrating technology into everyday life. It seemed at the time (and I continue to believe) that the blind adoption of rapidly advancing technology would have unknown and possibly deleterious effects on the human condition. Sounds like the subject for a nice book, eh? Alas, Nicholas Carr has beaten me to it with The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. The Glass Cage: Automation and Us

While recognizing the industrial and social benefits of automation, Carr points out that our inventions no longer help us accomplish work, but rather do the work for us. If the work is mindless or backbreaking, so much the better, but technology now threatens to rob us of many of the experiences that make us human. As I have written elsewhere, this point really resonates with me. I am reminded of a rhetorical question posed by a friend several years ago: “Why do I have to remember anything, when I can just look it up?” That is a serious question. The answer, of course, is that remembering—knowing—is a critical part of what makes us human. Machines look things up; humans know.

The challenge is to build technology that relieves man of the burden of work without robbing him of the satisfaction of work. Here Carr gives a huge shout out to the human factors research community, which knows a great deal about the interaction of humans and their machines, but which Silicon Valley has little interest in accommodating if that means limiting what can be done (and how much money can be made). Utopia, we are told, is life without work, instructing BeerBot to fetch us a cold one while we lie on the couch watching Netflix. Come to think of it, why can’t BeerBot just anticipate that I need a cold one!

Baxter the Robot
Baxter the robot. Source: BBC News, which included the funny caption “Baxter can work happily alongside human co-workers.” We ask, can humans work happily alongside Baxter?

Back in the industrial world, automation has changed laborers and craftsmen into button pushers and monitors—caretakers making sure nothing goes wrong. But as Carr points out, automation is not just a threat to the blue collar workforce. White collar jobs that involve design, analysis and decision making are very much in the cross hairs. If corporations are willing to replace workers with robots, why would they hesitate to replace a multitude of managers with Mr. Algorithm? They won’t.

The effect of technology on employment is neither the point of Carr’s book nor the point of this post. I am more interested in the effect of (logistics) technology on us. Is the logistics industry developing machines and devices that improve the human condition, or is it developing machines and devices that improve ROI? Are these objectives mutually exclusive? Must they be?

What is really interesting to me is the prospect that, in an environment of scarce labor resources, companies that developed and implemented human-centric work environments with “human optimized automation”—perhaps at a higher cost—might have the last laugh. What exactly “human optimized automation” looks like is still an open question, but I am sure it doesn’t look like a row of buttons and toggle switches. Here’s hoping that Carr’s book gets a wide reading in our industry, and that suppliers and end-users in the logistics industry find a way to develop automation that serves rather than dehumanizes us.

2 thoughts on “Logistics Automation and Us

  1. Excellent post on automation. From a human factors engineering perspective, automation should be designed to help the human operator (in partnership), rather than control the process. Automation should keep the human informed (provide continuous feedback about the system state), keep the human trained (maintain skill in case of system failure), and keep the human in the loop (active human involvement rather than passive). Increased automation may be desirable only if human operator situation awareness is maintained. Degradation of situation awareness can lead to errors and unsafe conditions.

  2. It’s a great post Kevin. I work in a logistics consulting company in Latin America and we have begun to see that, for example, automation in distribution centers labors make workers to think less and less everytime, now they only have to react to some light, following voice instructions or pressing a button, their thinking function is reduced to a minimal expression. It doesn’t contributes them to improve any capability nor getting satisfaction from that improvement.
    I think in the near future will be imperative, from a holistic perspective, to consider all these social impacts in the decision making rather than only think about ROI and productivity.

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