The factory floor was once a loud environment peppered with the shouts of human workers, but rapid automation is seeing many of them fall silent.
Whether used as a point of fear or a more optimistic view of the future, there is no denying that automation is leading to many typically human roles in the workforce being phased out.
The service industry, for example, has been seen to favour eliminating the need for face-to-face interactions with customers, instead employing online chatbots to handle many of the basic questions of whatever service that might be.
For example, China Construction Bank recently opened its first human-free branch, with the building occupied by a robot dubbed ‘Little Dragon’, which can scan a person’s bank card and answer any queries they might have.
Away from day-to-day interactions is the automation of production, from producing cars to the latest in computer hardware.
While some form of automation has existed in the largest of factories since the 1980s and even earlier, there was always a human presence operating these robots in some capacity.
However, with the rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI), in many cases these robots no longer need their human masters for guidance, and instead rely on their own ability to be given a set of instructions and act them out, or modify them when needed.
The pace at which change is occurring is so dramatic, in fact, that a report late last year from the McKinsey Global Institute predicted that by 2030, as many as 800m human factory workers will find themselves out of work due to automation.
Case in point: The auto industry
There is a suggestion that – much like other major shake-ups of the work environment in the past – we will see human workers transition into other roles, including AI development itself.
On the other hand, there is the argument that adding more and more robots into a workforce won’t fix the problem, but will actually create problems in their current form, with an example being Tesla’s recent production troubles with its Model 3 car.
Dr Martin Mullins – head of accounting and finance at the University of Limerick (UL) and director of Transgero, a UL campus company that specialises in emerging risk – believes that the auto industry, from manufacturers to insurers, could do more to be ready for a future of autonomous cars, for example.
“Manufacturers are still trying to understand how to monetise the data automated cars will generate,” he said. “Overall, this is a disruptive moment for both carmaker and insurer, and we are likely to see a lot of changes over the next decade or so, including new market entrants.”
But what does an automated factory actually look like from the inside? Thankfully, some of the world’s biggest companies have allowed cameras to peek inside their massive complexes to let people see what is not only a present reality, but an increasingly futuristic one, too.