Chris McGuganOctober 16, 2019

Balancing Man and Machine in the Workplace

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Earlier this year, employees at one of Amazon’s Minnesota-based fulfillment centers went on strike to improve work conditions, corporate culture, and benefits on one of the company’s top sales days of the year. This day—Prime Day—reportedly generates billions in sales for the retail giant. One striker, a 55-year-old “rebinner” at the fulfillment center, told The Washington Post that she’s expected to handle 600 items per hour. The job led to a stress fracture in her foot that left her on short-term disability for almost two months.

If you go to the video coverage of the event, you’ll see skeptical or grudging comments that share a glimpse into the mindset of the public on this matter. Among the top include: “Next week’s news.... Amazon's fulfillment center outside Minneapolis is the first to become fully automated” and “Strikers: ‘Workers are not machines’ Amazon: ‘That gives me an idea...’”

One commenter just flat out says it: “The machines are going to replace you for not being machines.”

And thus, we are back to square one of the “man vs. machine” conversation. The one that encourages us to take cover from the onslaught of evil robots that are going to supposedly wreak havoc on humanity. One that has led many organizations to avoid adopting or even learning more about artificial intelligence (AI) due to a lack of misunderstanding about—or plain old fear of—the technology. In fact, a new study from Vanson Bourne found that when it comes to barriers holding back AI adoption:

  • 43% of companies report “lack of understanding on where and how AI can be used”
  • 39% report “fear of AI replacing human jobs”
  • 28% report “over-reporting of AI scare stories in the press”

Despite what the Elon Musks of the world say, we are nowhere close to having machines take over the world. This is unrealistic and ineffective. Conversely, effective AI takes an existing business environment and makes it that much better to drive new efficiency gains. It’s not a matter of replacing people with robots, which some reports would have us believe. Even if this was the goal, the unavoidable truth is that although AI can perform tasks faster than any human can, we have the ability to express empathy and create meaningful connections that AI simply can’t (at least, not yet).

There’s a give-and-take dynamic at play. So, what is really needed in today’s business climate is a rewriting of the current narrative. It’s not man vs. machine. It’s man and machine. At least, when approached correctly.

Here are a couple examples to give you an idea of what I mean:

  • Coca-Cola uses AI to intelligently analyze data for more targeted product development. For example, the launch of its Cherry Sprite flavor in 2017 was inspired by data collected from self-service drink fountains that let customers mix their own drinks. Because the machines offer a choice of flavor “shots” for customers to add to their drinks, the company was able to identify the most popular flavor combo and have their product developers create a ready-made beverage.
  • Global energy leader, BP, has sensors installed in more than 99% of its oil and gas wells to help teams better understand the conditions of different sites regardless of location. This AI-enabled data helps them optimize the performance of equipment, monitor maintenance needs to prevent breakdowns (increasing cost savings), and ultimately make better, more informed decisions.

But what about our Amazon “rebinner” who’s on strike? Surely, this person’s job would be replaced by a machine that could grab hundreds—even thousands—of items a minute and place them in the appropriate chutes. This is where we see that lack of culture employees are striking about. So many AI-enabled technologies could be implemented in this one instance to lessen the repetitive nature of the job (and the probability of getting hurt) versus replace the human worker.

An intelligent conveyance system with robotic process automation could scan and/or detect simpler items and place them in the appropriate chute so that the human employee could focus on complex items that require more time and attention. Or, real-time communications could be embedded in processes and workflows to bridge the gap between the front and back office, enabling rebinners and any other backend workers to more intelligently collaborate and coordinate resources.

If the job becomes at risk of elimination, there emerges a fantastic opportunity to leverage that person for a more fulfilling and immersive role in the company. While a huge element of AI implementation is cost savings, Amazon could surely afford to creatively redistribute some employees as a company that hit $1 trillion last year.

I understand that not everyone’s a lover of AI. When it comes to man and machine in the workplace, it’s crucial that companies know where to draw the line. Decision-makers within organizations have a responsibility to understand how their policies affect real working people, and to create strategies for effectively implementing AI to improve the experience of employees and create meaningful change.

Chris McGugan

Chris leads Avaya's technology strategy development to guide future investments. His focus is on assessing customer needs, market trends and how new and emerging technologies can drive value and improved customer experience as part of the digital transformation in communications that Avaya is leading.

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