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Where Did the People Go? The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Employment

Earlier this year, I visited an automobile manufacturing plant to see the impact of the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in the manufacturing process. Artificial intelligence is intelligent machine behaviour modeled after human judgement and reactions. Although AI provides many benefits to society, the technology comes with its disadvantages, specifically, it has a tremendous impact on the labour market

Upon arrival, I boarded a cart to enter the immense three million square-foot plant filled with innovative automated machinery. As I entered, three characteristics were immediately noticeable: the neat workplace, the contemporary appearance, and the high degree of quality control. A plant manager pointed out the strict rules all staff members must follow to keep their workspaces neat and the countless quality tests they must execute on every car. Near the entrance, thousands of shelves were filled with metal sheets which waited for autonomous vehicles to transport them to the bustling assembly line. These vehicles navigated through the premises by sensing magnetic strips embedded into the floors. Capable of transporting hundreds of pounds of material throughout the factory, the vehicles removed safety hazards by completing the physically strenuous tasks that humans used to perform.

Surrounded by many robotic carriers, the cart followed one which happened to be carrying previously cut-out components of a car’s frame. The transporter arrived at its destination just in time for four robotic arms to jump into action simultaneously and remove the parts it was carrying. The components were then precisely placed together for additional robots to weld them. As sparks flew everywhere, the factory looked like an unreal science fiction film where the machines, as a separate form of life, were working in perfect synchronization. Shortly after, another automated arm lifted the completed car frame up onto an overhead conveyor for it to traverse the plant towards the next assembly steps.

Later on, loud music coming from all directions began playing. The plant manager explained that specific tunes were played for different types of production failures which required human employees to resolve in different sections of the plant; in this case, many employees were crowding around a broken robotic arm. Many technicians on tricycles rushed towards the malfunctioning arm with their toolboxes. It was necessary to repair the arm quickly because one failure could delay the entire car production.

The frame of the car finally arrived at the painting station where it was painted by numerous robotic arms. The staff members then installed the interior parts of the car that automation could not account for. After a few additional procedures were finalized, the car underwent five hundred quality control tests: for example, water resistance, maximum speed, fluid leaks, and proper assembly. The completed cars were loaded onto a freight train and ready to be shipped all around the world.

Everyday, a total of one thousand four hundred cars are produced at this plant. This high productivity can occur because of the efficiency of autonomous machines. Each machine works on its individual task and can be optimized in many ways. Therefore, the robots working together in an assembly line can produce identical cars at a high speed, with minimal defects.

On my way home, I began to wonder about the social impact of using such advanced automation. There were so few human employees in the manufacturing plant – where did they all go? Before artificial intelligence was introduced and widely used in the automobile industry, many employees made a living by working at assembly lines. These devoted individuals provided for their families, contributed to the automobile company and, ultimately, to the transportation industry. Nowadays, with more mechanization, robots are replacing these workers who then have to re-qualify themselves for a new career. This can be a long process: the workers must often develop a new skill set and spend time searching for employment. Generally the workers that are replaced have jobs that involve repetitive tasks that do not require much emotional interaction. It is unfair that these replaced workers must suffer from loss of employment and the resulting financial hardships due to factors beyond their control. At the same time, this expansion of the AI technology can cause social inequality as the revenue generated by AI technologies is generally concentrated in the hands of only a few large technology companies. Overall, it is likely that the future generations and businesses will have to learn about, apply, and adapt to the prevalence of artificial intelligence in our world. Meanwhile, it is necessary for all of us to be mindful of the ethical and social implications of technology in the modern world.

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