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October 2014

The Unprecedented Ways Automation is Changing Life

Last week, NPR reported on Nicholas Carr’s recently released book, The Glass Cage. Carr is known as an author with pronounced concerns about the increasingly large role played by technology in our lives, and in his most recent book, Carr takes a look at the growing list of tasks that we can automate.

It seems that the rising popularity of the self-driving car may be the thing that sparked Carr to voice his concerns. In his interview with NPR, he says, “At least you used to have to figure out where you were. And even with a paper map, you’d have to locate yourself somewhere and figure out what the landmarks around you are and kind of get a sense of place. And that’s no longer necessary when you have the voice come on and say, ‘In 500 yards turn left, 200 yards turn right.’ I do think there’s something lost there.” 

In previous articles, we have explored the controversial points in automation that have caused some to worry about the implications of this kind of technology for the economy and the American workforce. But Carr is worried about something else here. A few weeks ago, NPR also did a story on how the Americana father/son bonding ritual of fixing a car was going to change with the increasing numbers of computerized elements in the average car. It’s this kind of threat to a lifestyle that Carr is concerned about, but truthfully this may be the kind of change that we are least able to anticipate.

Carr notes other examples of potential cultural changes that may result from an increasing presence of automation: less experience doctors, pilots, and other professionals. New and different professional and personal relationships.  Loss of intellectual stimulation at home and in the work place.

Perhaps the most disturbing example Carr gives is in the need that we have created for machines to make our moral and ethical decisions on our behalf. He provides the oft-cited example of an autonomous car put in the position to decide whether it will hit a child in the road or crash into a tunnel, possibly killing the passenger.

When considering these kinds of questions, it is important to be contextual. For example, it is worth considering the safety ratings on automated cars versus manually operated cars. Automated cars have very low accident rates, and so in a future where most cars on the road are automated, it seems likely that even if we are put in the position that we rely on machines to make these kinds of split-second moral decisions, we will probably be saving lives overall by having more automated cars on the road. Considering the number of injuries and fatalities that already occur as a result of vehicular accidents, it is in a way amazing that we as a society have invested so heavily in car ownership as a lifestyle. It is already a significant gamble.

In regards to concerns over a changing culture and the potential for loss of opportunities for mental stimulation, this is pretty closely related to the concern over the loss of job opportunities that occur as a result of automation. In response, those defending automation usually reply that companies replacing employees with automation should consider offering training to their employees so that they can pursue higher-level jobs in engineering and maintenance of machines, etc. But because this concern is specifically that we are depriving ourselves of much of the substance of our daily thoughts, it is worth considering what kinds of opportunities automation presents us in this regards. Theoretically, automation should free people of repetitive, uninteresting tasks such that they can use their time in better ways. This means that rather than bemoan the loss of opportunities for mental stimulation, we should consider the potential that new opportunities will be created.

This concern that an increasing role played by technology will diminish our abilities to feel grounded in the world and close in our personal connections is not uncommon, but is also not necessarily supported by the evidence. For example, studies have shown that the increasing use of text message shorthand has not diminished students’ abilities to write correctly. However, we should also consider that there is evidence to suggest automation does not always offer us the benefits we expect. For example, studies have shown that though we now have access to so many devices and apps to help us stay organized and save time, that most people now report feeling even more stressed and more pressed for time than ever.


September 2014

Part 5: What can we conclude from all of this, and what can everyone do to contribute to a greener world? (Article Series)

In our latest article series,  Automation GT takes a look at the role played by manufacturing and automation in climate change throughout history. Rachel Greenberg writes technical and marketing content for Automation GT. 

If there is one thing that we can conclude from the evidence collected here, it is that one of our major obstacles in changing our poor track record in regards to the environment is in changing our culture. While we as a culture continue to demand material goods in large, cheap quantities, manufacturers will continue to drive production, and while our economy continues to depend on fossil fuels, manufacturers will continue to produce goods in a way that is heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

So in the meantime, what can manufacturers do to produce goods in a more sustainable way, and how can they advocate for a more environmentally conscious consumer base and political scene? And what can consumers to do demand a more environmentally friendly marketplace?


For Manufacturers:

One of the most impactful things that a manufacturer can do to protect the environment is to constantly reevaluate their process and weed out inefficiencies. This will require a variety of steps:

  1. Identify and replace any out-of-date machinery in your factories. Older machines tend be less fuel efficient and clean than their newer counterparts.
  2. Examine your supply chain and eliminate redundancies and slow-ups. If there are any instances in which you could collocate certain operations that were previously spread out, you may be able to reduce your carbon footprint from travel and exportation/importation. You may also be able to utilize fewer employees to achieve the same amount of work. This will mean fewer people commuting every day and fewer resources that your business must allocate for all of their employees.
  3. Automate as appropriate. Choosing to automate your operations can grant you significant means to decrease your carbon footprint. The more you automate, the fewer employees performing redundant tasks you will need, which may mean fewer cars on the road. If you can automate sufficiently, you make be able to convert your operations into “lights out” manufacturing: in some such situations, businesses have been able to entirely or almost entirely automate their processes to the point that they can turn off the lights, air conditioning, and maybe even the running water for their facilities because there are no people inside who would require those facilities.
  4. If possible, restructure your factories to rely partly or entirely on renewable and cleaner energies. Investigate different options in converting your factories’ machines and central power supply to different types of energies based on what is available for your region. Consider hiring a consultant to help you improve your energy policy, or consider funding research projects on the local, national, or international level that might produce cleaner fuels, especially on the scale needed by manufacturers.

In addition, manufacturers can act as advocates for the development of cleaner systems, and more importantly, for a manufacturing culture that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels and that prioritizes ecological preservation. Depending on your place in the production process, you should be able to use your particular powers and privileges to your advantage in advocating for better environmental policies. And don’t restrict yourself to advocacy within your organization; seek out opportunities where your authority, position, skill set, and experiences might be valuable to advocacy groups or nonprofits engaged in environmental policy.


Advocacy for Manufacturers

As a manufacturer, you have particular insight on the inner workings of the manufacturing process and the specific ways in which the manufacturing process can be wasteful and inefficient. Be observant and make notes when you notice places where improvements could be made and bring those observations to your supervisors, administrators, etc. Do research on what other factories have been able to do and craft proposals for your own factories. Bring your successes to the public so that other manufacturers can achieve similar successes. If appropriate provide workshops or classes on improving environmental impact.


Advocacy for Administrators

As an administrator in a manufacturing or production operation, you likely have a good perspective on what goes into project and process development. This means that you have the unique opportunity to weigh in early in the production process when you notice waste. You have the ability to constantly press for more progress, for even better conservation, even when it seems that you’ve done the best you can do and are being maximally conservative.

You also have the power to encourage more research to ensure that your products are made from the best materials (safe, sourced responsibly, refined in fuel efficient ways, etc.) and that you always purchase from and sell to similarly environmentally responsible partners.

You can also fund and support research in your own and in other companies towards alternative fuels and technologies. If any feasible systems emerge, set an example by becoming an early adopter.


Advocacy for Everyone

Of course, there are always things to do politically and socially to encourage better environmental behaviors. However, industry represents 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions, so we would do well to specifically address how everyone can contribute to improving this sector.

Everyone can get engaged with this conversation on the political front. (Check out this interesting TED Talk on reaching out in an effective way to your representatives.) There are a few particularly important areas that deserve your attention:

  1. According to Greentech Media, there are three issues of particular importance: providing funding for the proposed clean energy hubs, reauthorizing the advanced manufacturing tax credit, and passing a progressive carbon tax. More clean energy hubs would give manufacturers greater options in choosing clean energy. The manufacturing tax credit rewards environmentally conscious manufacturing. And a progressive carbon tax would ensure that the cost of fossil fuels would reflect that actual environmental cost of our failure to alter our economic dependence on fossil fuels.
  2. Let your shopping habits reflect your environmental concerns. Decrease or eliminate unnecessary purchases. Whenever possible, choose locally and sustainably produced goods. Limit your consumption of meat and other high-environmental cost products.
  3. Limit your direct use of fossil fuels. Avoid unnecessary or extravagant travel. Choose biking, walking, and public transportation when possible. Offer incentives for your employees to do the same. Offer employees options to work from home or attend meetings remotely to reduce travel.
  4. Use your environmental advocacy to your marketing advantage. Advertise your positive environmental choices as a positive aspect of your business. Promote trends that similarly advocate environmentalism and minimal consumerism.

Part 1: The Industrial Revolution, Climate Change, Global Environmental Problems, and Manufacturing

Part 2: Does automation provide any environmental aid? How can innovation lead to a better environmental picture?

Part 3: Is automation a better environmental option than the alternative? Can we keep people at work while also saving the environment?

Part 4: How do global politics and other factors affect the environmental situation of manufacturing?

Part 5: What can we conclude from all of this, and what can everyone do to contribute to a greener world? 


August 2014

Part 2: Does automation provide any environmental aid? How can innovation lead to a better environmental picture? (Article Series)

In our latest article series, Automation GT takes a look at the role played by manufacturing and automation in climate change throughout history. Rachel Greenberg writes technical and marketing content for Automation GT.

In Kasa’s essay, referenced in our last article, Kasa makes the point that when we develop as a technological society, we hope that our new technologies in each era will provide address of the environmental issues of the industrial era that preceded it. If innovation is meant to do anything, it should be addressing things that compromise and complicate our own welfare. It is in our own best interest to innovate in such a way that we are protecting, not damaging, our environment.

However, as Kasa notes, “As new industrial revolutions often supplied technologies that eased existing environmental problems, this relief was often only partial. Exploiting the benefits of new technologies for environmental improvements has always been dependent on complimentary socio-political changes.”

Indeed, the drive to produce technologies that can contribute in a significant way to easing climate change and other environmental problems relies heavily on funding and research interest, which in turn rely on popular interest. Fortunately, popular interest is beginning to turn in favor of projects that support environmental change.

Thus, it is worth looking at the projects that already support environmental change and the ways in which industry actually benefits our environmental situation.


Renewable Energy, Alternative Economies, and Innovation


As is likely apparent from the first article in this series, industry can damage the environment in the following key ways:

  • Burning of coal and use of oil create air pollution.
  • Reliance on finite supplies of oil and coal for energy have sparked unsustainable hunts for new sources of energy. The methods by which resources are located, extracted, and transported have large environmental and human costs. In addition, even with “clean” fuels that do not pollute the air as much, these fuels virtually always contribute in some way to global warming.
  • Manufacturing processes that require lots of use of chemicals (including factory farming) contribute to pollution of surrounding bodies of water, and may also put dangerous pollutants into the air, soil, and locally grown food.
  • Manufacturing with low overhead cost has given rise to a widespread consumerist culture. Coupled with a rising population, this trend has created a dramatic and extreme need for goods and resources. Depending on the materials, labor, and resources needed to create a particular good, this can represent a significant total environmental cost between locating, mining, refining, transporting, and processing materials.


While we have reduced air pollution as factories have come to rely less on wood for fuel, today fossil fuels represent one of our greatest obstacles against achieving a carbon-neutral economy.

In 1949, American geophysicist M. King Hubbert predicted that our use of fossil fuels would peak from 1970, and from that point, commercial and industrial use of fossil fuels would be on the decline. Of course, as we have seen, by the year 1970 fossil fuels had become a cornerstone of our way of life in the developed world, and efforts to decrease our dependence on oil and coal would prove monumental.

The most viable and most frequently discussed alternative energy sources are nuclear, solar, and wind power. However, in each case, there have been barriers, either social or practical, that have prevented manufacturers from embracing these energy sources outright.

Nuclear power continues to be available only in certain areas. Each time disaster strikes as a result of human error in nuclear power (as most recently in Fukushima), the public tends to lose its taste for nuclear power for some time. However, according to EDF Energy, nuclear power plants produce as little as “16 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent for each kilowatt-hour of electricity it generates (gCO2/kWhe)” compared to 1001 gCO2/kWhe for coal power plants.

Solar power and wind power boast low carbon rates of 22 gCO2/kWhe and 12 gCO2/kWhe respectively. And some companies have made recent success with alternatively fueled factories. For example, last year Apple announced plans to construct a solar powered plant in Arizona.

Consider the numbers below based on data from Wikipedia:

Type of Power Emissions in gCO2/kWhe
Hydroelectric 4
Wind 12
Nuclear 16
Biomass 18
Solar thermal 22
Geothermal 45
Solar PV 46
Natural Gas 469
Coal 1001


It is the same type of scientific innovation that imagined the means of industry and automation as imagined this variety of alternative energy sources to combat our reliance on fossil fuels. However, if scientists have given us perfectly good means of reducing our carbon footprints through manufacturing, why have we failed to pursue these options on a wider scale?


The Role of Population Growth


There are an approximate 7 billion people living in the world today. Simultaneously, the average person in the developed world now tends to live longer and to expect more in terms of goods and services. This is good from an ethical standpoint: we are doing a better job at guaranteeing a basic quality of life for a larger percentage of the world.

However, by current standards the average American would require approximately 9.6 hectares (24 acres) of land “required for carbon sequestration, production of resources, and assimilation of wastes (not including pollution and water).” A sustainable amount is closer to 2 hectares per person.

Countries including the United States, China, India, and Mexico continue to grow, and while these are some of the countries that people often consider when thinking of global population growth, the countries with the highest rates of growth are actually Uganda, Nigeria, and Bangladesh. In fact, most population growth occurs today in Africa and Southern Asia. In some of these countries, populations may even triple in the coming years.

This is a common phenomenon in countries experiencing increases in wealth and stability: populations which had otherwise been relatively low will grow rapidly for a number of years before leveling out at a more sustainable population. However, with the definition of what it means to achieve basic subsistence ever growing more complicated, we will likely end up with a very large number of people who expect a very high quality of goods including cars, which represent a very serious economic toll, and foods that because of our unsustainable farm factory methods, will also create a significant environmental burden.


Economic Factors


In a very general way, manufacturing and industry tend to give us several things which, when considered in a void, seem unequivocally good:

  • Greater access for more people to cheap goods including food, clean water, and medicine.
  • Lower infant and childhood mortality rates and eventually longer lifespans as well.
  • Better likelihood that more people will be able to get at least a basic education.
  • Greater access to transportation and industry usually means more people can get jobs which contribute to better local economies, better family finances, and higher personal feelings of purpose and job satisfaction.
  • A stronger local economy is more likely to bring greater likelihood that more people will be able to reach the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, including many of the requirements for self-actualization and esteem: creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, acceptance of facts, self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, and respect by others.
  • Decrease of highly stratified local class systems. For example, in the US, because a very large number of people make fairly similar incomes and because goods are so widely and cheaply available, in 2009 as many as 83% of people considered themselves middle class or upper-middle class.

Henry Ford was a revolutionary in his industrial design that ensured that all of his employees would make enough to be able to afford the cars that they manufactured. This was one of the first steps towards the creation of the American working class and middle class, and the creation of the American consumerist culture. It is very important that the product in question was the car, which in many ways contributed to the popularity of the suburb, which reinforced a need for a car.

Eventually, we managed to develop an economy that was entirely dependent on fossil fuels. We have factories that run on fossil fuels producing goods that require fossil fuels, which require workers living in houses that run on fossil fuels, traveling to work with cars, buses, and trains that require fossil fuels, and buying goods and foods that require fossil fuels for transportation and production. And with more people all over the world living longer and having more children who live longer, we need evermore goods to support them, which requires a still greater investment of energy and resources.

Divorcing ourselves from fossil fuels is one of the most important things we can do to build a more sustainable manufacturing industry, but because fossil fuels are so tightly interwoven with our economy on so many levels, it is virtually impossible to simply remove them. Rather, the best we can do is slowly remove them, one at a time, from our homes, cars, and factories.

Part 1: The Industrial Revolution, Climate Change, Global Environmental Problems, and Manufacturing

Part 2: Does automation provide any environmental aid? How can innovation lead to a better environmental picture?

Part 3: Is automation a better environmental option than the alternative? Can we keep people at work while also saving the environment?

Part 4: How do global politics and other factors affect the environmental situation of manufacturing?

Part 5: What can we conclude from all of this, and what can everyone do to contribute to a greener world?