Robots are all well and good, but humans still win
A couple of weeks ago in this column I wrote about how Elon Musk, the power behind Tesla, had blamed excessive automation as one of the reasons for Tesla’s production problems, stating that, in his view, automation is “overrated” and that more humans are required to build his cars. Well, according to a piece of research by the Boston Consulting Group, robots only perform around 10% of tasks in a typical factory. This flies in the face of all the nonsense that we read about automation being the nemesis of the human race, of how humans will inexorably become redundant as more and more jobs are performed by robots.
The truth is that robots by themselves are exactly what the name suggests - robotic! They are incapable of responding to unforeseen glitches. They lack creativity. Could you ever in your wildest dreams imagine a robot composing Elgar’s cello concerto - still, if I were only allowed one piece of music on my desert island, the work I would choose. Or painting Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? Robots are programmed to perform their tasks. Programmed by human beings who are capable of using their innate agility and judgement to cope with the unexpected.
Human beings, of course, aren’t perfect. They make mistakes, they forget things, and the very creativity that sets them above everything and everyone on this planet can sometimes be their undoing. As the poet Robert Browning wrote: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Robots are unequalled when it comes to performing tasks which call for speed and precision, and which are repeated over and over again ad infinitum. Sounds rather like the majority of lineside processes in your average car plant, doesn’t it? And that’s fine until there is a hitch. Until a piece of machinery fails to do what it’s supposed to do, even though it has done it perfectly a zillion times before. That’s when a human is needed. That’s when a sense of alarm kicks in, when an often inexplicable impulse in the nick of time saves a situation and, perhaps, human lives.
I don’t doubt that automation will become an increasingly prevalent part of our everyday life. It should do. There are many tasks which could be better and more safely performed by robots. Just don’t ask them to equal Sir Edward Elgar.
Simon Duval Smith
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