Bringing people on the tech journey

Robots and humans can work in partnership. Credit: NearEMPTiness CC.4.0
Robots and humans can work in partnership. Credit: NearEMPTiness CC.4.0
Automation continues to overhaul tired port operations. Credit: Wolfgang Klein CC-BY-SA-4.0
Automation continues to overhaul tired port operations. Credit: Wolfgang Klein CC-BY-SA-4.0
Students at Erasmus can learn about new tech in an adaptive capacity. Credit: Erasmus UPT
Students at Erasmus can learn about new tech in an adaptive capacity. Credit: Erasmus UPT

Automation and AI are pushing forward but as Stevie Knight asks, what happens to the workforce?

There's no doubt: smart technology is proving a double-edged sword. For some, this is an exciting, if edgy, time with the potential for 'human-plus' innovation to enhance port and supply chain capabilities.

Training at Rotterdam's Living Warehouse Lab is currently centred on wearable tech for warehousing operations, covering everything from Cobotic exoskeletons to Google glasses, Hololens and Progloves. Companies bring in their new technologies and find out what happens when people are exposed to them, while students learn about the latest tech in an adaptive capacity.

Maurice Jansen of the Erasmus Centre for Urban, Port and Transport Economics explains that schools have a crucial role to play in raising a generation of people with this ability. However, he is clear that “you put people, not the technology, at the centre... otherwise you risk training for work which might not be there anymore”.

But not everyone is excited about new tech and there are inevitable labour-related objections. To counter this, the Human Port Capital Programme brings together authorities as diverse as Singapore and Barcelona in an attempt to carve a path through. 

“The challenges of the energy transition and digitisation can only be met if we also focus on the social transition,” pointed out Rotterdam Port's chief executive Allard Castelein at the programme’s launch. Indeed, it's looking to embrace initiatives such as lifelong learning and enabling tech startup communities, making the most of the sustainable supply chain movement.

Leaving workers behind

But according to Andy Feakins of Impact People Strategies, new technology-related demands stand to leave a swathe of older workers behind — despite well-intentioned retraining programmes. Mr Feakins is blunt: “The skillsets required for automation are of a new age, needing a tech-savvy generation. So it's extremely unlikely that your veteran stevedore will transition across.” Furthermore, he doesn't necessarily expect other industries to readily absorb those that find themselves out of a job.

It's a point picked up by Professor Harley Shaiken of the University of California, Berkeley, who sees a far-reaching problem on the horizon: “The issue isn't new. But with AI, we are on the cusp of creating some very largescale displacements, and this time around, it is profoundly different.” He adds: “While this may be further off than generally expected, we are looking at technologies that will impact all sections of the economy, from attorneys to forklift drivers: eventually there won't be an industry to accommodate the displaced workers.”

So, how's it going to be handled? There are some interesting views being aired across the industry: according to one insider, “there are people saying we can't have a shutdown of the kind we saw on the US West Coast in 2015 [and] there has to be dialogue”. He adds that a number may be considering a collaboration between operating companies and unions that goes beyond traditional labour agreements.

While Professor Shaiken points out: “Historically, that's going to be a tough sell,” he adds: “That doesn't mean it's not a good idea.”

LA moves

These deliberations may come a little late for Los Angeles. APM Terminals is attempting to transform Pier 400 into its third and largest fully automated terminal – with consequent job losses. The operator faces objections not just from the union, but from the port's board, and at first glance, it doesn't appear there's much ground for co-operation. But as Commissioner Diane Middleton underlined, the state Clean Air act proves that the port already has experience of extracting a win-win from conflicting requirements, adding that “new technology doesn't have to be on the backs of jobs or our standard of living”.

However, she points out that it is a far broader issue: “What's the future of work in America, how do we implement technology without destroying ourselves?”

This is something that Prof Shaiken has been considering for some time. He believes we need a “different kind of accounting” that takes into consideration the effects on community and economy. While he says that “there's no single magic bullet” he advocates tying automation and AI to “shorter working weeks, without a reduction in pay... and a share of the productivity gains to those impacted”. That way, he adds, the economy benefits from the higher efficiency, “while on the flip side, no reduction in pay means no reduction in purchasing power”, which keeps communities alive.

So how could this, or other initiatives, be funded? Despite seeming whacky at first hearing, a so-called 'Robot tax' has been proposed by personalities as diverse as Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates. It might be the best answer on the table right now: “It could work” says Prof Shaiken: again, it's not an easy sell “but it could prove the least painful solution, given the unaddressed cost of social dislocation”. It could also shine a light on systems which stand to reduce productivity rather than raising it.

Time to adapt

However, according to Mr Feakins, “the evolution is irresistible... and ports that try to avoid it will eventually wither and die”. While he admits the crane moves of fully-automated terminals generally leave something to be desired, he believes “in time this will change”. Further, he adds: “You have to look at the entire operation, you can lose on one part but gain on the whole... plus it works 24/7 and you get no sickness or health issues.”

However, as Prof Shaiken underlined, while technological advances may be inevitable, we have a useful lesson from nature: the pace of change could, perhaps should, be slowed enough to give the surrounding human communities – the 'ecosystem' – time to adapt.

Although technology could help deliver a brave new world, don't take that for granted: if we make the wrong decisions now it could all turn very sour.

Even systems that initially looked like solving some of the myriad challenges are now creating a few of their own.

Take flexible working hours, an offshoot of the 'always connected' society: “People sign in and make themselves available by phone, the whole platform is built on flexibility... but not care. And, at present it's highly unregulated,” says Mr Jansen: “This is a growing issue especially for drivers and warehousing staff. At present the temporary agencies have a strong position, but they could be circumvented – by a software app.”

He adds: “Finally, you have to ask, is it socially sustainable?”

Mr Jansen explains: “Often those that choose flexibility are young – for them, it's a deliberate choice.” But, he says, alongside those will be another set of people that stand to have their earnings damaged by this development. “If these unregulated platforms work their way up through the logistics chain, it could degrade the whole social contract. And you could get to a position where, for example, there'd be no bank loans for van drivers.”



REINFORCED BIAS RISKS

No-one can dispute that the nature of work is changing and more roles will open up for those that can drive data, not cranes. There's also a whole world of cross-platform skills that could bring logistics and IT together. “The critical element here is how to connect data with planning decisions,” says Erasmus’ Maurice Jansen. It stands to benefit everything from container positioning in the yard to whole swathes of the supply chain.

Are these IT roles more likely to go to men, and not women?

You might think that we are getting past that kind of distortion, but the very AI relied on to level the playing field might only end up reinforcing bias and also, by allowing 'the-computer-says-no' answers to become acceptable, put responsibility out of reach.

The reason is simple: unchecked, machine learning merely reflects the status quo – and then distils it, until you are left with a concentrated version of any and every existing prejudice.

Both these points are gaining international attention: the ILO global commission on the future of work, chaired by Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa, and Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven, notes that “the platform economy could recreate nineteenth-century working practices... Left to its current course, the digital economy is likely to widen both regional and gender divides”. Therefore, it recommends regulation and “adopting a 'human-in-command' approach to artificial intelligence that ensures the final decisions affecting work are taken by human beings”.

In short, we need to ask some difficult questions – now – about the kind of working environment we are creating for our future.

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