Someone I know keeps calling me on the phone for casual conversation. As of late, the conversation has a tendency to turn to the fears of artificial intelligence and automation taking over all the jobs, leaving humanity with nothing to do. This all makes me remember my first job as an automation engineer in a chemical plant – the largest in the world of its class. This was decades ago. I spent weeks with the crew of production operators, wearing my hard hat and steel toed boots, learning their job. They knew this big computer was going to be set up and programmed, and sensors and actuators were going to be installed in all the pipes and valves and tanks out in the field, and the once manual process of antibiotic production was going to become automatic. There was excitement, and fear. Some in the crew were afraid that once all would be fully automated, jobs would be lost. There was excitement about the technology and what we could make it do. A couple of us engineers went through months of analysis, ideation and design of algorithms, testing and deployment. We designed user interfaces in the big clunky computer monitors of the time where, with the press of a key or two, valves would open and close. We wrote programs that monitored temperatures, flowrates and volume levels. The programs would run uninterrupted for a week. They did away with a big portion of the time the crew used to spend monitoring the operation in the field. I suppose those who feared the new technology most, had already started sampling the market for new jobs.

Magical things happened. Since there was less need to “roam around” looking into “sight glasses” with a flashlight into 100,000 liter tanks for things that were going wrong or had failed (which tends to happen when you combine a week long process with mechanical and pneumatic moving parts connected to analog wiring, and circuit boards inside of hard plastic enclosures that are supposed to be impermeable but really aren’t, next to superheated steam pipes), operators started sitting around in the control room looking at the monitors with the little diagrams we had designed, and the data readings. They started to look at the equipment in the field as systems of things all working together. They became system analysts of sorts. Some of them started deciphering on their own the algorithms that the two of us engineers who designed and deployed the software had come up with to replace their manual way of doing things in the past. We had originally explained how the algorithms worked, but it was not until they saw everything running, and analyzed its performance over weeks, having as a backdrop the previous knowledge they had from operating things manually, that they started giving us feedback on  how to improve the algorithms. They became data analysts of sorts. Some of them became the smartest and most highly skilled chemical plant operators in the region.

Our project at the time was the largest and the first of its class on the island where we lived and worked. Soon after, similar automation started being deployed in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry regionally, and opportunity spread like wildfire for all who had been part of that project.

That is why I tell the person that calls me, with the fears about AI and robots taking over, that there is no reason to fear. Three decades ago in this project, there was no “cloud”, there was no internet of things, there was no internet, and artificial intelligence was a direct reference to the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie, which was already old but way ahead of its time.

Nobody told us then, but looking now, it is obvious that we took a crew of plant operators used to looking through sight glasses, flipping analog switches and turning valves, and gave them an early primer on a hard wired precursor of the internet of things, that stored data in a slow transmission speed local cloud, and showed them to understand and interact with rudimentary artificially intelligent systems. It was our own mini renaissance, and we were all better for it. It is happening again, chose to embrace it and understand it, so you may be able to shape it and make it better for you and those you care about.

Our View from the Top – October 30, 2018