As the grip of the labor shortage tightens, today’s enterprises can employ automated machines that boost safety and free up human minds.

The year was 1978 when the first robotic limbs began to flex, and it was only three years later that these gleaming synthetic appendages began their life as production hands — gripping and moving parts on the assembly line.

The dream of a human-technology partnership

Since then, the planet’s population of industrial robots has grown to nearly 3 million — according to The World Robotics 2021 Industrial Robots report — an increase of 10% over 2020 alone. And in the U.S., robot orders saw a 28% hike over the same period.

The dreams of artists and writers have held close to the idea that machines were created to serve the needs of humans, not the other way around — even while digitization and intelligent automation continue to challenge the tradition of people-operated workflows.

But robots are only one kind of automation. The advent of the ATM was one example that was expected to overturn banks. Despite studies like this Brookings example that show quite the contrary, anxieties persist as intelligent automation becomes more pervasive.

The virtual assistant whom answers mortgage questions without breaks is no longer a novelty, nor is the recent expansion of robotic burger flippers a surprise. The mere notion of what “work” is becomes less about what we do, and more about the value and opportunities we create.

Wanted: Humans and cobots for safe and healthy workplace collaboration

When Elon Musk quipped in a recent Tweet that “humans are underrated,” he pointed out an infallible truth — that behind every smart factory, industrial production line and machine learning algorithm is a good human.

Plant operators need to carefully tend and monitor their site’s machinery, with regular collection and analysis of machine data to keep them running. But checking those assets and machinery for defects can be dangerous to soft human bodies when it comes to slip and falls, confined spaces and encounters with chemical fires.

Entrusting more tasks to these hard-shelled, intelligent machines is shown to free up people from not only risky tasks, but repetitive ones too. In fact, twice as many routine tasks and simple business decisions are expected to be performed by intelligent machines by 2023 than in 2017, according to this IBV report.

Musk’s point is not new. Collaborative robots (or cobots) were invented in the mid-1990s to help people avoid these on-site dangers. With the velocity of digital transformation, cobots are gaining cognition skills thanks to many of those same AI innovations that turned chatbots into supportive virtual agents.

Let’s create ethical AI that elevates workers

One such example is Boston Dynamics’ four-legged, one-armed cobot, Spot. This robodog-like assistant senses its way through dark and inaccessible locations, going where human workers can’t (or shouldn’t) — roaming dark edges of the facility to collect data and check leaks in hard-to-reach areas. And yes, it can even fetch a beer.

Lacking critical backend services, one thing the Spot couldn’t do was interpret what it was seeing. This meant relying on humans to bear too many risks as they sought to pick up where Spot couldn’t and resolve problems through manual intervention.

Read this case study about how Boston Dynamics teamed with IBM on an AI-powered monitoring solution that helps Spot rely on AI models to analyze assets throughout an industrial site. Today, this roaming edge device carries its own pack of analytics, can apply them wherever is needed and can step up to catching machine failure in real-time, before it becomes a problem.

As cobots (and virtual assistants) grow into more helpful colleagues, could we actually have a shot at the ultimate tech-positive workplace of the future? This Super Bowl ad, however humorous, might give us something to dream about.

A wake-up call to embrace intelligent automation

In light the global supply chain crisis, past fears about the social repercussions of technology are giving way to a more deeply intertwined vision of intelligent automation as a “human-technology partnership.” This looks at how work can be transformed with technology, specifically by pairing mobile robotic platforms and chatbots with more sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI), natural language processing (NLP) and computer vision capabilities.

As forward-thinking leaders continue to step up efforts around digital transformation and reinvention, research from IBM’s Institute for Business Value (IBV) shows 73% of executives surveyed expect revenue growth from implementing intelligent automation technologies.

Seizing an opportunity to emphasize more human skills in the workplace, such as empathy and adaptability, can complement technology’s impact with a culture of openness to drive a more diverse, productive and satisfied workforce.

Striking the balance is even more important as labor shortages continue to compound a beleaguered supply chain. Sprinkle another chapter of The Great Resignation on top of a wave of retiring manufacturing talent underway, and demand for labor (both skilled and unskilled) continues to surge. And it’s not going away any time soon, with four in five CEOs fearing the current labor shortages may be permanent.

As summed up in this recent McKinsey report: “The long-term implications of a high reliance on labor are clear: automation in warehousing is no longer just nice to have but an imperative for sustainable growth.”

Learn more

Businesses everywhere have entered a new era of digital reinvention, fueled by innovations in hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence. IBM is uniquely positioned to help our clients succeed in this radically changed business landscape by partnering with them to deliver on five levers of digital advantage: predict and shape data-driven outcomes, automate at scale for productivity and efficiency, secure all touchpoints all the time, modernize infrastructures and transform with new technology-driven digital business models. 

Get the new IBV report, “The Virtual Enterprise: The creativity of inclusive human-technology partnerships” which details how successful leadership depends on four priorities — cultural awareness, authentic and empathetic communication, intelligent technology and workflow automation.

The IBM Institute for Business Value delivers thought leadership and insights to drive business value.

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