While terms like artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet of Things and 3D printing mean different things for different people, they incite similar fears, that ushering in profound shifts in the way work gets done — especially on the factory floor — will inevitably lead to more displacement of more human workers.
The reality of what some call the “Next Industrial Revolution” or the “Second Machine Age” is much more nuanced, according to a group of experts who spend their time reading the tea leaves on crucial future-facing technology sectors.
For instance, there is transformative power in a global network of devices communicating with each other at all times, generating trillions of data points that can be used to boost productivity in a wide array of industries, said Alain Louchez, managing director of Georgia Tech’s Center for the Development and Application of Internet-of-Things Technologies, or CDAIT.
But no one agrees on what the “Internet of Things” actually is — either from a regulatory standpoint or in common speech, Dr. Louchez told an audience convened by the USA India Business Summit and the Georgia Tech Center for International Business Education and Research.
“It’s great to be invited to speak about something that doesn’t exist,” Mr. Louchez joked, pointing to “cacophonic voices” competing for air time on this popular topic. Actually, he says, “It’s a metaphor.”
An example: Some data center operators have an “Internet of Things” strategy that bypasses the world wide web, instead helping clients set up so-called “private clouds” that can be better sealed off from the Internet’s perils.
Still, this “interconnection of intelligent objects,” from wearable devices to static sensors, holds nearly limitless potential for impacting the way we live and work, especially when combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning, said Dr. Louchez, whose center counts AT&T, Samsung and AirWatch by VMWare as members.
The use cases are myriad — from targeting coupons to a mobile device user based on beacons that pinpoint location to sensors warning people living in a flood plain about an impending weather event.
Predictions of human displacement by technology tend to be overwrought, Dr. Louchez said, pointing to a law coined by Harvard University researcher Roy Amara. He said people “tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
The question now, from Dr. Louchez’s perspective, is whether we are ready to interpret the flood of data that will accompany the installation of these devices.
“It is not whether we adopt it; it is how we optimize its use,” he said, noting the need to marry technical fields with the humanities to ensure data scientists are creative enough to use information in practical ways.
C.B. Velayuthan, a senior vice president of global sales for Finnish technology giant Nokia, agreed, saying that the power of each individual technology is magnified by their “convergence.”
Nokia, which sells the networking equipment that enables the transmission of data, is seeing a huge demand for new capacity in light of six global megatrends: storage/networking, IoT, artificial intelligence, human/machine interaction, social trust and digitization.
“Data is the new oil that already is pushing us,” Mr. Velayuthan said, taking the analogy further to another physical commodity: “You almost could say that steel is being replaced by silicon.”
But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, says Suman Das, a leading 3D printing researcher whose work shows how digital design and physical production are beginning to come together in new ways.
The leader of Direct Digital Manufacturing Laboratory at Georgia Tech, Dr. Das also founded DDM Systems, which sells machines and makes parts for outside clients.
His competitive advantage is using advanced techniques to create parts out of new alloys that not too long ago weren’t even considered for the process.
It’s not a new field, Dr. Das said, noting that additive manufacturing has been around for some 30 years before it became encompassed in the catch-all term “3D printing.”
But paired with advances in material science and 3D scanning technology, along with the march of globalization, the process now has a greater capacity for disruption than ever before.
A key benefit of 3D printing is its ability to compress supply chains, either by allowing for more localized prototyping or eliminating the need for molds and other tooling, an expensive and time-consuming process, Dr. Das said.
While consumer 3D printers are still far from finding their stride, the commercial benefits in sectors like design and manufacturing are already evident. Dr. Das pointed to an array of products like jet-engine turbine blades and fuel combustion nozzles, dental implants, customized hearing aids and bone implants, among others.
He doesn’t see this as an existential threat to traditional manufacturing — at least not yet.
“Not every part can be displaced, but where these factors combine, there are business cases to be found,” he said.
Deep-pocketed players like GE are getting into the game with major acquisitions, hoping to head off disruption by acquiring leading machine producers like Arcam and Concept Laser. Even delivery and logistics giant United Parcel Service Inc. has partnered with Fast Radius to set up on-demand 3D printing centers in Singapore and, eventually, Europe.
Perhaps fitting for an event held at the state’s premier technology school, a good deal of time was spent during the session fretting over whether there will be enough trained candidates to fill the new types of jobs these changes are creating. Already many factory jobs are tough to fill in the U.S.
Dr. Das believes the early development in these pivotal sectors— both artificial intelligence and 3D printing (and the convergence of the two) — will be relatively confined early on to places like Silicon Valley and hubs for high-value sectors like aerospace.
“It’s going to happen first in those locations where there is already a pre-existing ecosystem and a pool available,” he said.
But as costs come down and systems are better developed, the fields will be broken up into jobs that can be performed without theoretical knowledge. As parts standards get more exacting, machines will be the ones monitoring machines — and someone will have to know how to manage that process.