Industrie 4.0: what about the human element in all this?

  • Experts

    20 July 2021

As early as 1936, Charlie Chaplin, in his film Modern Times, mocked our relationship with technology and machines that only gave man the role of performer. If Taylorism and Fordism have had their day, replaced by new forms of work organisation where tools were this time at the service of man, in Industry 4.0, machines talk to each other, robotic lines are interconnected for better productivity and logistics operations are self-managed. And what about Man in all this? Would he only have the role of a great policeman, somewhat overwhelmed by the intelligence of the machines themselves? Are we really losing control? It’s time to put humans back at the heart of Industry 4.0.

When technology changes the game

It is a fact: Industry 4.0 is reshuffling the cards and changing the hierarchical organisation of work. By automating a number of tasks, margins of error are reduced, speeds increase and productivity is improved. Today within a factory, leaving aside the most highly skilled jobs (design, R&D, IT for example), production is most often carried out in workshops on more or less automated lines, supervised either by operators or by maintenance technicians who take care of correcting the most urgent problems.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) makes it possible to sort and analyse a large amount of data and to bring out the problems, thanks to the principle of “Machine Learning”. Mixed Reality improves the working conditions of qualified operators by reducing quality risks. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or exoskeletal devices reduce the risks associated with musculoskeletal disorders. We can therefore say that these technologies, all digital, whether or not coupled with AI, robotics or IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) improve the quality of work but also the quality of life at work. Relatively complex in their implementation and appropriation, they are changing the nature of human work and pushing operators to improve their skills, as it is necessary to know how to repair, program and understand a machine in order to reap its full benefits. And what about tomorrow? When machines are completely autonomous, what will be the role of Man? We are not there yet but the deadline is approaching.

What if we have already gone too far?

The debate is not about whether or not we should question progress. The question today is that of the subordination of machines to Men, and of Men to machines! In the case of certain technologies, such as mixed reality, industrial robots (cobots) or exoskeletons, Man remains in complete control. But when it comes to AI, the risk of loss of control is real.

When we see that in Japan, since 2018, the movements of certain operators have been monitored by video systems and analysed, that in Amazon’s warehouses, the AI, which anticipates orders and manages stocks, “directs” the employees through the shelves, or that in the United States, thousands of individuals work in precarious conditions to improve the learning of AI and help them to be more efficient, the question of the virtuous circle arises. It must be noted that abuses exist and that the performance of tools sometimes takes precedence over the working conditions of men. But let’s not forget that the failures of Industry 4.0 are often the result of bad human decisions upstream.

Evolution of human-machine cohabitation

There is no need to panic: the apocalyptic vision of a world in which humans are nothing but slaves to machines is not realistic. It is not a question of renouncing technological progress, but rather of humans finding their place in this new system. New technologies bring with them new problems. However, there is no loss of control today, as the role of Man remains predominant. In the industry of the future, unforeseen events, breakdowns and malfunctions will always occur, and the human being is the manager of the machine’s intelligence. He monitors, solves problems, repairs, upgrades and, above all, makes critical decisions.

If AI pre-modifies analytical thinking by bringing out the most sensitive data, it is only a tool for Man, who retains his full decision-making power: AI enables him to act more quickly. He is still the one who parameters, feeds and trains the AI. As long as we do not grant it this decision-making capacity – if indeed it is capable of it – the place of the human will remain central. In this context, technology allows humans to gain perspective. And if the nature of work is changing, certain human qualities such as empathy, adaptability[3] and creativity are unlikely to be overtaken by machines. Thus, the cohabitation between humans and machines is becoming a win-win collaboration.

Technologies that boost responsiveness… and relocation?

From a global standpoint, 4.0 technologies are also shaking up the established order in terms of competitiveness. Massive relocations, encouraged by the presence of an ever cheaper workforce, will no longer be necessary in the case of more automated factories. The expertise of skilled operators in situ will tend to be revalued. If we add to this the problems of supply chain resilience – which the Covid-19 crisis has only served to emphasise – we can affirm that Industry 4.0 can play in favour of a relocation more in line with the responsible approaches of 21st century companies.

Let’s remain on our guard, but let’s be reassured for the time being: Man retains a place of choice and remains the force of proposal in any industrial continuous improvement project. It is up to the manufacturers to use these technologies in contexts that lead to improvements in working conditions: it is not the machine that takes the strategic and/or economic decision on its use, so the danger of alienation from machines will not come closer. Outside the industrial framework, it is also a question of trust, this time in the role of the state, to provide an appropriate legislative and regulatory framework. For what remains, let us refer to the statement by the philosopher Michel Serres: “New technologies condemn us to become intelligent“, and this in every respect.

AI human industrie 4.0