What Do We Mean by Automation? – Forbes

BROOKLINE - DECEMBER 14: There are numerous self-checkout aisles available at the Brookline Stop and ... [+] Shop. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

I suspect Im not alone in having less-than-satisfactory experiences with self-checkout machines at grocery stores. Many of us have dealt with the frustration of the machine blaring at us to remove a mysterious item from the bagging area, only to then wait for a human employee to assist us anyway. Im not just put off by the technology as a customer but also as a professor who specializes in the field of automation, and for one particular reason: even though self-checkouts are labeled as automation, theyre actually not.

According to Merriam-Webster, automation is the automatically controlled operation of an apparatus, process, or system by mechanical or electronic devices that take the place of human labor. Increasingly, there is a tendency to label any new technology as such, especially if it appears to do the job of a human, but perceptions can be deceiving. In the case of self-checkout machines, a robot hasnt replaced the cashiers job of scanning or bagging groceries; a human is still performing those tasks but its now the customer rather than the cashier. In other words, nothing has actually been automated. Self-checkouts have not only lowered the customer experience, making it more inconvenient and less enjoyable, but also displaced jobs, many of which are incorrectly blamed on automation.

In order to improve public understanding, as well as guide how we utilize automated technologies moving forward, engineers and other stakeholders need to consider the following. First, we must find ways to better communicate what automated technologies are and what they arent and highlight how they improve peoples lives. Secondly, it is incumbent on us to determine why we are designing these technologies. Is the goal to improve quality of life and work? Or human productivity? Both, or neither? If automation is going to continue permeating society, its crucial that we, both those creating it and those affected by it, have a fuller, more thoughtful approach to how we think and talk about automation.

So-so automation

While our lives may seem more automated, which is cause for alarm for some, the reality is that weve been living with automation for decades without fully appreciating it. For instance, an appliance many people use daily provides an understated example: your oven. You set the temperature you want to cook at, and the oven maintains that temperature on its own. Its a simple directive, with the oven performing its functionality without user involvement.

But other forms of automation arent always as helpful or productive. A recent New York Times article about changes to corporate workplaces due to COVID-19 addressed so-so automation technology that is just barely good enough to replace human workers, but not good enough to create new jobs or make companies significantly more productive, according to the article. At best, its a neutral addition and at worst, a negative one; the output is the same, and little to nothing new comes out of it. The article cites self-checkouts as an example, but also notes white-collar jobs are increasingly at risk, and at a faster pace than ever before. If automation is simply displacing humans, rather than improving what they can do, its no surprise that it will be met with hesitation, if not opposition.

In other cases, true automation is deployed without full consideration of its impact on individual human populations. The New York Police Department recently began using a dog robot called Digidog during patrols. On one hand, Digidog can help police surveil dangerous situations and cover more ground. But Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, raised concerns to the Times about bias, surveillance and privacy over using a robot for this type of work. Technology like Digidog can have an adverse effect on the communities it is being used in, particularly if those communities are not educated about the technology, and its capabilities and limits. This can further alienate people from automation.

The case for automation

I conduct research and teach courses in the field of control systems which are at the heart of automated technologies, and was driven to this field because of the positive impact it has had, and can continue to have on society. Nonetheless, I acknowledge why automation is resisted by those who are most negatively affected by it, whether in the workplace or in their daily lives.

The solution is to move away from so-so automation and towards innovation that actually pushes the ball forward for people, workers, business, and society more holistically. There are already plenty of examples of automated technologies that we engage with regularly, such as autofill text on your mobile devices, robot vacuums, smart thermostats, adaptive cruise control in passenger vehicles, and plenty more on the way. We intrinsically understand how all of these types of automation make our lives easier, just as we fundamentally recognize when a technology is not.

If both users of automation and its creators have a clear-eyed view of what the technology is and how they can use it, we will be able to leverage it more effectively. This may require improving how we educate students, and the general public, about technology and its impact on humanity. Automation is sure to have a significant impact on our lives, so lets make sure its a positive one.

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What Do We Mean by Automation? - Forbes

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