Will total quality mean the end of imperfect people?

Dean Hirokazu Kono

In a two-part article Hirokazu Kono, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Production Management and Dean of Keio Business School, Japan, explores the human-or-machine question and contends that, paradoxically, imperfection has a reassuring future.

From an interview by Tom Gamble and Gaëlle Parrot.

Does artificial intelligence take people’s jobs?

Automated production systems have been a long-appreciated feature of prosperous industries. The list of examples starts from Venetian ship production in the 12th century, followed by French gunsmith Honoré Blanc in the 18th century, British naval engineer Samuel Bentham, and the American Eli Whitney, all of who were forefathers of the idea of interchangeable parts and automated production processes. It was Japan in the 1950s and 60s, however, that was to become the world leader in automation and the quality process, especially in the automobile industry. Nissan, Toyota, and Honda were the pioneers in mass-producing high quality, reliable and modern cars that featured standard parts which most competitors at that time considered options. Nowadays, in Japan as elsewhere around the world, the assembly lines are becoming increasingly automated with fewer and fewer people involved in the process. Nevertheless, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) do not necessarily mean elimination of people from workplaces. In Japan, companies are likely to shift people otherwise employed on the production line to sales or after-sales sections, thus reducing the direct loss of jobs caused by accelerating technological innovation.

It seems, then, that the benefits of AI outweigh the urge to sound the alarm that people are being supplanted by machines. Indeed, in Japan, AI is beginning to fill the gaps between employment supply and demand, especially in the service and convenience store sectors that require interaction with customers at night or on weekends. For example, the economy hotels industry, providing low-cost accommodation for people on business trips, is rapidly introducing establishments operated by a single person, and where guests are communicated by automated machines after initial check in. This instance at least implies that people are ready to exchange human contact for convenience and low-price.

However, there remains a sensitive subject. AI has entered many other business domains in Japan, including healthcare and transport. While railway stations are equipped with automated voice communication systems providing information to travellers, hospitals have begun to use robot seals – called PARO – to accompany Alzheimer sufferers (PARO is also being tested by the British NHS). All in all, it seems that repetitive tasks are being overtaken by willing robots. But such automation also creates problems. Take the introduction of telephone applications in healthcare services for example. A visible benefit for doctors is that they can now oversee multiple patients via the smartphone and computer interface, thereby optimising time and productivity. The drawback, on the other hand, is the toll the doctor pays in terms of stress and workload. In the past there was one patient to deal with at a time – now there are many and they come almost instantaneously. In a sense, the same problem applies to production management and the automated assembly line. A quality manager is able to address a multitude of issues by using digital solutions – at any time – resulting in the barrier between working time and private life becoming more and more blurred.

Perfection or imperfection? That is the question

There is a general tendency to view machines as purveyors of total quality. However, many reports show that AI can be just as imperfect as the average human. Many companies still suffer from over-production, product defects and quality lower than clients’ requirements, despite the introduction of robots and AI-controlled processes. Customer complaints and the burden of stock costs are still rampant, and these cannot be solved by AI alone. Indeed, it looks likely that such problem-solving will require a human form, that is, senior-level and experienced employees using the information and data generated by AI to supply the machines with the troubleshooting answers. Interestingly, the people-versus-machine debate often arises among young people with surprising results. Keio Business School, one of the internationally recognised leaders in higher education among the business community, sees many young professionals, domestic and international, joining its selective MBA and EMBA programs. They are generally well-versed in IT and the use of AI, but the vast majority still prefer to visit the production lines for on-site experience and, more specifically, for contact with the people actually working on them.

Moreover, while machines actually produce the product, in many cases humans carry out the final touches. Cars rolling off the production line, for example, are better finished by humans who do a much better polishing job than machines. Another example of finishing touches – we dare to say the final step for perfection – is that of a small company in Tokyo that produces parts for rockets. While the rocket bodies are machine-produced, it was found that humans did better in finalising the nose-cone, the specific round-shape of which cannot (yet) be perfectly crafted by robots.

Read Part 2 of Hirokazu Kono’s article: Towards a people-less company and a player-less game? 

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