Episode 104

A Scandinavian Perspective on Industrial Operator Independence with Johan Stahre


November 30th, 2022

44 mins 1 sec

Season 3

Your Host
Special Guest

About this Episode

Augmented reveals the stories behind the new era of industrial operations, where technology will restore the agility of frontline workers.

In this episode of the podcast, the topic is "A Scandinavian Perspective on Industrial Operator Independence." Our guest is Johan Stahre, Professor and Chair of Production Systems at Chalmers University in Sweden. In this conversation, we talk about how the field of human-centered automation has evolved, the contemporary notion of operator 4.0, Scandinavian worker independence, shop floor innovation at Volvo, factories of the future, modern production systems, robots, and cobots in manufacturing.

If you like this show, subscribe at augmentedpodcast.co. If you like this episode, you might also like Episode 84 on The Evolution of Lean with Professor Torbjørn Netland from ETH Zürich.

Augmented is a podcast for industry leaders, process engineers, and shop floor operators, hosted by futurist Trond Arne Undheim and presented by Tulip.

Follow the podcast on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Trond's Takeaway:

Human-centered automation is the only kind of automation that we should be thinking about, and this is becoming more and more clear. Operators are fiercely independent, and so should they be. This is the only way they can spot problems on the shop floor, by combining human skills with automation in new ways augmenting workers. It seems the workforce does not so much need engagement as they need enablement. Fix that, and a lot can happen.


TROND: Welcome to another episode of the Augmented Podcast. Augmented brings industrial conversations that matter, serving up the most relevant conversations on industrial tech. Our vision is a world where technology will restore the agility of frontline workers.

In this episode of the podcast, the topic is A Scandinavian Perspective on Industrial Operator Independence. Our guest is Johan Stahre, Professor and Chair of Production Systems at Chalmers University in Sweden. In this conversation, we talk about how the field of human-centered automation has evolved, the contemporary notion of operator 4.0, Scandinavian worker independence, shop floor innovation at Volvo, factories of the future, modern production systems, robots, and cobots in manufacturing.

Augmented is a podcast for industrial leaders, process engineers, and shop floor operators hosted by futurist Trond Arne Undheim and presented by Tulip.

Johan, Welcome. How are you?

JOHAN: I'm fine, thank you, Trond. It's really nice to see you.

TROND: Yeah, likewise.

JOHAN: Fellow Nordic person.

TROND: Fellow Nordic person. And I apologize for this very American greeting, you know, how are you? As you know, I'm from the Nordic region. I actually mean it, [laughs] you know, it was a question. So I do wonder. [laughs]

JOHAN: I'm actually fine. It's just ending the vacation, so I'm a little bit sad about that because everyone...but it's a very nice time now because the rest of the world seems to be on vacation, so you can get a lot of work done.

TROND: I concur; that is a wonderful time. Johan, I wanted to just briefly talk about your exciting background. You are an engineer, a mechanical engineer from Sweden. And you had your initial degree from Linköping University. Then you went on to do your Ph.D. a while back in manufacturing automation, and this was at Chalmers, the University in Sweden. And that's where you have done your career in manufacturing research.

You are, I think, the first Scandinavian researcher certainly stationed currently in Sweden that we've had on the podcast. So I'm kind of curious, what is manufacturing like in Scandinavia? And what is it that fascinated you about this topic so that you have moved so deeply into it?

JOHAN: Manufacturing in Sweden is the core; it's the backbone of our country in a sense. We have statistically too many large manufacturing companies in Sweden as compared to, I mean, we're only 10 million people, but we have like 10, 12 pretty large companies in the manufacturing area in automotive but also in electronics like Ericsson, you have Volvo, we have SKF. We have a lot of big companies.

Sweden has an industrial structure that we have several small companies and a couple of large companies, not so many in the middle section there. This happened, actually, in the 1800s somewhere. There was a big growth of big companies, and there was a lot of effort from the government to support this, and that has been continued. So the Swedish government has supported the growth of industry in Sweden, and therefore we have a very strong industry and also quite good digital growth and maturity.

TROND: So the Scandinavian background to me when I was there, I remember that one of the things that at least Scandinavian researchers think is distinct about Scandinavia is worker independence. And it's something that I kind of wanted to just tease out a little bit in the beginning of this podcast. Am I wrong in this, or is there something distinct about the relationship between, I guess, workers and managers in Scandinavia, particularly? One speaks about the Scandinavian model. Can you outline a little bit what that means in manufacturing if it still exists? It's an open question.

JOHAN: From my perspective, Sweden usually ranks very high in innovation, also when it comes to international rankings. And I think some of that has to do with the openness and the freedom of thinking in a sense and not so hierarchical, more consensus-oriented, ability to test and check and experiment at work without getting repercussions from top management. And it is much easier.

In fact, if you are at one department in a manufacturing company or in university as such and you want to collaborate with another colleague across the aisle, if you have a two hierarchical system, you need to go three levels up in order to be able to do that. But here, I think it's easier to just walk across the aisle to have this collaboration and establish a cooperative environment. I think that that's part of the reason.

Also, we're not so many; I mean, I think historically, we needed to do a lot of things ourselves in Sweden. We were a country up north with not so many people, and we have harsh environments, and I think it's the same as Norway. I mean, you need to be self-sustainable in that sense, and that creates, I think, environmental collaboration.

TROND: We'll go more deeply into your research on manufacturing and to what extent a question I asked here matters to that. But do you have a sense just at the outset here that this type of worker and operators sort of independence, relative independence, perhaps compared to other regions, is it changing at all? Or is this kind of a feature that is a staple of Scandinavian culture and will be hard to change both for good and for bad?

JOHAN: I think that as everything...digitalization has sort of erased a lot of the cultural differences across the world in that sense. Because when I was a student, there was not this expressed digital environment, of course. The information environment was less complex. But I think now all the young people, as well as my mother, does her banking...she's 90, but she does her banking on her iPad; I mean, it's very well-spread.

And I think that we are all moving towards a similar culture, and the technology is spreading so quick. So you cannot really have cultural differences in that sense. But I think that's still the way that we're using this. And I think that the collaborative sense I think that that is still there. The reason why Sweden is comparatively innovative still is that we still maintain our culture and use the technology to augment that capability.

TROND: So, Johan, we'll talk about a bunch of your experiences because you obviously are based in Sweden. And because of Sweden's industrial situation, you have some examples, you know, Volvo, a world-famous company obviously, and also famous for its management practices, and its factory practices, we'll get into that. But you've also worked, and you're advising entities such as the World Economic Forum, and you are active on the European stage with the European Institute of Technology. Your activity clearly goes way, way beyond these borders.

But why don't we maybe start with some of these Scandinavian experiences and research projects that you've done maybe with Volvo? What is it with Volvo that captured people's attention early on? And what sort of experience and research have you done with Volvo?

JOHAN: I think that Volvo is very innovative, and Volvo today is two types of companies; one is the car company that has now gone fully electric. It was introduced at the stock market, most recently owned by a Chinese company, and before that, it was owned by Ford, and before that, it was also public. But you also have the other part, which is the Volvo Group, which is looking at trucks, and boats, and things like that.

And they both share a high level of innovation, ambition, innovation, and power, I think, using the experiences already from the '60s, where you had a lot of freedom as an employee. And also very good collaboration with the union in investments and in all the changes in the company I think that has been very beneficial. And it's made them...what is now Volvo Cars was very, very early, for example, with digital twins. They were experimenting with digital twins already in the 1990s.

And we work together with Volvo but also with SKF, which is a roller-bearing company here to look at how we can support frontline workers and augment their capabilities because they're very skilled and they're very experienced. But sometimes you need to have sensor input, and you need to have structures, and rules, and procedures, and instructions.

So we worked quite early with them already, maybe in 2009, 2010, to see how can we transform their work situation, provide them with work instructions through wearable devices. It was very popular at that time. MIT was experimenting with cyborgs. And the people that were...I think it was Thad Starner; he was trying to put on a lot of computer equipment. Then he went through the security at the airport and had some problems there. But that's not the case for the operators. But it was a little bit too early, I think.

We tried to experiment with some of the maintenance people at Volvo cars. And they were very interested in the technology, but the use for it was a little bit obscure. And this was at the time when you had the mobile connectivity was 9,600 kilobits through a mobile phone or in the modem, so Wi-Fi more or less did not exist. And the equipment: the batteries weighed two kilos, and the computer weighed one kilo. And then you had a headset that looked like you came from deployment in a war zone. So it was a little bit...it looked a little bit too spacy for them to be actually applicable.

And then some 10 years later, we actually did a similar experiment with SKF, the roller bearing company where we deployed the first iPod touch, I think they were called. That was right before the iPhone. I think it was an experiment by Steve Jobs to see how can we create what then became the iPhone screen. And we put that on the arms of the operators and tried to see how can we give them an overview of the process situation. So they were constantly aware, and they were quite happy about this.

And then, we wanted to finish the experiment. The operators actually said, "Well, we don't want to give the equipment back." And then we said, "Well, we need to have it back. Of course, you can use the software." So they brought their own phones, and they downloaded the software. And they're still using it, actually, not on their own phones anymore. But they use this kind of software that we developed at that time together with them. So that was quite interesting.

TROND: That's fascinating. Extrapolating from some of these early experiences up until now, I wanted to just ask you this from a research perspective, but also, I guess, from a management perspective. So you work on production systems. What is really the goal here, or what has the objective been early on? You talked about these early MIT experiments. And I know control systems is a very old area of research. And from what I understand, in the early days, the use cases weren't just factories; they were also on spacecraft and things.

But to your point, especially earlier, we were working with very, very different technology interfaces. But now, obviously, we are starting to roll out 5G, which gives a whole other type of richness. But does it really matter how rich the technology interface is? Or does it matter more what the objective is with these various types of augmentations that have been attempted really throughout the decades? Can you just give us a little sense of what researchers and yourself what you were trying to augment and how that depends or doesn't depend on the quality of technology?

JOHAN: First, we need to realize that the manufacturing industry has always been a very, very early adopter. The first computers were used for war simulations and for making propellers for submarines to see how you can program the milling machines. This was in the 1950s. And the industrial robots in the '60s in the '70s were also very early applications of digitalization. Before anything else had computers, the manufacturing industry was using it, and that's still the case. That might surprise some people. When they walk out into a shop floor, they see no computers around because all the computers are built into the machines already.

What is still missing is the link, perhaps to the people. So they are still using the screens. And they are the ones...people are the key components of handling complex and unforeseeable situations. So you need to provide them, I think...to be really productive, you need to provide the frontline staff with the equipment for them to avoid and to foresee and to handle unforeseen situations because that's what differs between the man and machine or a human and the machine.

People are much more apt to solve a complex situation that was not programmed before. That's the augmentation part here; how can we augment the human capabilities? And people talk about augmented reality; I mean, I don't think it's the reality that needs to be augmented; it's the human to be handling the reality that needs to be augmented.

TROND: Johan, this is so fascinating because, first of all, it's quite easy to dismiss manufacturing a little bit these days because, to the untrained eye, all the excitement is in the consumer space because that's where the new devices get released, and that's, obviously, where all the attention is these days unless you obviously are in manufacturing.

But can you bring us back to those early days of computing when a lot of the use cases for computing were first explored with manufacturing? So you talked about MIT, and back at MIT and at Stanford, all the way back to the '60s, they were exploring this new and fascinating field of even artificial intelligence, but before that, just regular control systems, electronic interfaces. What fork in the road would you say happened there? Because clearly, the fascination has been with digitalizing everything and software kind of one for 30 years, but in manufacturing, it's more complicated.

You say people, so it's people, and then it's kind of these production systems that you research. That's not the same as the use case of an individual with their phone, and they're sort of talking to people. There are many, many more variables in play here. What is the real difference?

JOHAN: Last year actually the European Commission put forth industry 5.0, which should be the follower after industry 4.0. And they based that on three main challenges. One is sustainability, one is resilience, and the various kinds of resilience towards the shock of the war but also by climate, et cetera. And the third one is actually human-centeredness to see how can we really fully deploy human capabilities in a society and also in industry, of course.

I think what you're referring to is the two guys at Stanford in the '60s; one was John McCarthy. He was the inventor of the artificial intelligence concept. His aim then was to replace human work. That was the ambition with the artificial intelligence because human work is not as productive as computing work, but it still has some drawbacks.

But in the same place not so far away, in another department at Stanford, was a guy called Douglas Engelbart. And he was actually the father of...he called it intelligence augmentation. So it was AI and IA at that time. But his ambition was to augment human work to see how can you have this. And he was the one that invented hypertext and the mouse. And he put up the first hypermedia set in Silicon Valley. So this was a guy that inspired companies like Apple, and Xerox PARC, those kinds of institutions that had a huge bearing.

There was a book by a research colleague at Oxford. He was comparing that over time, from the early industrial days and then forward, technology that replaces people always has more complications when introduced and scaled than technology that augments people. If you look at the acceptance and the adoption of the iPhone, that took months, or weeks, or whatever, seconds for some people, for me, for example.

If you look at what happened in the industrial revolutions in the 1800s and the 1700s, you had a lot of upheaval, and already in the 1960s...I'm starting to sound like a university professor. But in '96, in the U.S., there was a Senate hearing about is automation taking the jobs from people or not? And the conclusion was that it is not, it is actually creating companies that then employ more people because of the productivity gains and the innovation gains. And you allow people to use the automation as augmentation, not only cognitive augmentation.

We think a lot about augmentation as something that you do with your eyes and your brain. But robots are also augmenting people. It lifts heavy objects like cars or big containers, whatever. That's the kind of augmentation that maybe you don't consider when you look at it from an artificial or an augmented reality perspective.

TROND: Well, so many things to pick up here. But the variety of meanings of augmentation are kind of astounding, aren't they? And you've written about this operator 4.0 several times. There's obviously cognitive augmentation, and then there's physical augmentation. Are there other types of augmentation that you can speak of?

JOHAN: I really can't think of any.

TROND: But those are the main ones. So it's either kind of your mentality or sort of your knowledge. So the work instruction parts go to the skills-based, I guess, augmentation, which perhaps is an additional one. Or I'm just thinking if manufacturing wants to make progress in these things, it would perhaps make sense to really verify what workers at any moment actually themselves express that they need.

And I guess that's what I was fishing for a little bit here in this history of all of this, whether the technology developers at all moments really have a clear idea of what it is that the workers are saying themselves they're missing or that they obviously are missing. Because automation and augmentation, I mean, do you find them diametrically opposed, or are they merely complementary when it works well?

JOHAN: I mean, automation traditionally has been the way to scale, and, I mean, in the beginning, you want to see what the machine is doing, right? And then you really don't want to see it. You just want it to work. So it's really helping you to scale up your work. And in that sense, automation, like collaborative robots, for example, which people are talking about robots, are something that is replacing jobs, but if you look at it, it is a very small portion of statistics.

In Singapore, which is the highest user of robots installed, there were 950 maybe robots per 10,000 employees. And the average in the Americas is 100 robots per 10,000 employees, and that's not really a lot. And so there is plenty of space for robots to be the tools for people. So if you don't treat them as something that will replace you but something that will actually augment you, I think it would be much easier.

What could happen, though, and I think that is maybe part of your question, is that, well, these tools are becoming so complex that you cannot use them unless you increase your skill. How do you do that? Because no company would like to end up in a situation where the tools that you have bought and invested a lot of money in are too complex for your employees to use. That's a lost investment.

It's like you're building a big factory out in a very remote place, and you don't have enough electric power to run it. You don't want to end up in that situation. Like you expressed, I think that maybe what's missing and what's trending right now is that the upskilling of the workforce is becoming extremely important.

TROND: And how do you do that, Johan? Because there's obviously...there's now an increased attention on upskilling. But that doesn't mean that everyone has the solution for it. And employers are always asking for other people to pay for it, for example, governments, or the initiative of the worker, perhaps. It seems like Europe has taken this challenge head-on. Germany, at least, is recognized as a leader in workforce training. The U.S. is a latecomer to the game from that perspective. But it typically shows up in a big way. So something is going to happen here in the U.S. when it comes to workforce training.

What is the approach? I mean, there seems to be two approaches to me; one is to simplify the technology, so you need less training. And the other would be obviously an enormous reskilling effort that either is organized, perhaps ideally in the workplace itself, so it's not removed from the tasks. Or some enormous schooling effort that is highly efficient and perhaps online. What do you think are the winning approaches to re-skilling that entire manufacturing workforce continuously? Because it's not like you have to rescale them once, you have to rescale them every time.

JOHAN: Well, I can only guess. I think that you need to do all of these, all of the above. One complicating factor is the demographics of, especially Japan; of course, we know that from a long time that, they have an aging population. But Europe is now becoming the new Japan in that sense. We have a very big problem in terms of aging populations, especially countries like Italy and perhaps Germany but also in northern countries. And we don't have perhaps...there's a lot of discussion on immigration right now. But actually, the workforce would need a lot of immigration to be able to respond to the needs of our industry in the forthcoming situation.

I think that China is maybe 4 or 5 years behind Europe, and the U.S. is maybe 10-12 years behind Europe as well. So that will happen...the only non-affected regions right now are India and Africa. And that means that the European, and Chinese, and U.S. industries will have to compete with a rather young population in Africa and India. And so that will become over time, but it is a long time, so that means that it's not always on the political agenda. Things that take a long time are usually not the things that you speak about when you have election times that we have in Sweden right now. It's mostly what's on the table. So I think that how to do that is really complex.

We had some collaboration within the World Economic Forum. It is a fantastic organization because it spans the whole globe. So that means that the information comes from different parts of the world, and you can see different aspects of this. And a country that has done a lot about this is Singapore, very good experiments, very nice projects, initiatives regarding upskilling. And Europe is now launching an innovation program where they want to go deeper into deep tech to try to...the commissioner for research and education in June launched a big initiative around innovation and how that can be supported by deep technology. So we'll see what comes out of that. It'll be very, very interesting to see.


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TROND: Speaking about the World Economic Forum for a minute, Johan, you have been part of this group project called the Augmented Workforce Initiative. You told me when we spoke earlier that, in your opinion, this initiative couldn't have existed even just five years ago. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Because augmentation, the way that you've been speaking about it now, is a perspective that was nascent, even in the early days of computing and manufacturing control systems. Yet, it seems to have disappeared a little bit, at least from the top end of the political and research agenda. Yet here we are and you said this initiative couldn't have existed five years ago. Can you explain what you meant by that?

JOHAN: That is a very, very nice initiative by the World Economic Forum, and it's run by the forum and Cambridge University, who has a very, very good group on this and some very nice people. And I'm honored to be part of that group together with my colleague from Mexico, David Romero. You may know him as well.

And I think that what they're looking at is the increased understanding. And that was actually one of the sessions at this World Economic Forum, you know, the Davos days that were run this year. And it was actually part of those days as a theme about how to engage, and how to support, and to augment the workforce, which has never happened before on that level. So it's really, really high on the agenda.

The Forum has been running previous projects also on the future of work and how the demographic situation is affecting or how the skill situation is affecting the companies. They have come up with suggestions that more or less half the workforce needs to be upskilled within the next couple of years. And that's a huge undertaking.

TROND: The novelty here is that the world's elite managers, I guess, who are represented at the World Economic Forum are increasingly aware of the complexity of workforce issues generally, and then specifically of upskilling, and maybe even upskilling in this very specific meaning of augmenting a worker which, I guess to my mind, is a little bit different from just generally speaking about robotic automation and hammering these efficiency points.

But obviously, it's a much more challenging debate because it's one thing to find a budget for an automation effort and introduce a lot of computers or introduce a lot of whatever technology, usually hardware, but what we're talking about here is a lot more challenging because you need to tailor it to these workers. And there are many workers, obviously, so it's a complicated phenomenon. How is that going? What would you say are some of the findings of the Augmented Workforce Initiative?

JOHAN: I think that companies like Tulip, companies like Black & Decker, and others have a lot of good use cases actually already, which may or may not before have been labeled augmentation. It might have been labeled as operator support, or decision-making support, or things like that, or upskilling. But I think that the findings are that there is a lot out there, but it's not emphasized as something that is really important for the company's survival in that sense.

TROND: It wasn't so glorified before. A lot of the decision support systems were viewed as lower-level systems that were just kind of more like HR systems or just tinkering with necessary stuff that people had to know kind of a thing. And so you're saying it's been elevated now, yeah, as having a much more essential impact on the quality of work.

JOHAN: It has a leveraging impact for the whole company, I would say, but that's also part of this industry 4.0 approach. And you have the hierarchical integration of companies where the CEO should be aware of what's going on on the shop floor and vice versa, as well as the horizontal integration where you have the companies up and down the supply chain and value chain knowing what's going on early. And that is really something that maybe stopped at mid-management level before, but now it needs to be distributed out to the places where the complexity is higher, and that's the frontline workers.

Maybe...now I'm guessing, but I think that also the understanding that the investments done by this company in complex manufacturing equipment could be at risk if you don't have the right skills to use them is now penetrating, I think, a lot of the companies.

In Europe, in 2019 or something like that, there were almost 30 million people employed in the manufacturing industry. And if you look at the number of...if you say that half of these need to be upskilled somehow over a period of three years...and I actually made a mock calculation that the re-skilling need for in-person months in Europe if we were to fulfill this is 50 million person-months, 50 million person-months, just the time for the people to participate in these trainings. So that's a huge undertaking.

And I think that that scares companies as well as governments because just imagine taking 50 million person-months out of productivity or the production equation. But the alternative might be worse. If you lose your capability to use your equipment, that might even be worse.

TROND: Wow, these are daunting things. I guess that brings me to the last section here and some thoughts from you on the future outlook. When it comes to technology and these tools for human augmentation, what are the timelines for, well, either making the improvements or, as you said, not losing competitiveness because of this skills crisis? What are we looking at here? Is there some imminent challenge and opportunity? Or is this going to play out over 25 years?

JOHAN: I think that in 25 years, the demographic situations will have changed again, so I assume that they will look different. But right now, we have a problem with an aging population. And we have a lot of people going into retirement. A lot of knowledge will disappear unless we can store it somehow.

A lot of people will not go into industry. I mean, when I talk to colleagues, they say, "Well, we need to make the manufacturing industry more sexy. It should be cleaner, or it should be nicer because young people don't go to industry." But if I go to the healthcare section, they will say the same thing, "Oh, we need to make it much better because people are not applying for these educations."

TROND: [laughs] Where are people applying, the tech companies?

JOHAN: No, that's the problem. They don't exist. They were never born.

TROND: [laughs] Right.

JOHAN: So the demographic bomb is that they are actually not there. So you cannot rely on employing young people because they are not existing in Europe and soon not in the U.S. to the extent that they were before. So therefore, you need to focus on the older people. So you need to re-upskill not only the middle-aged people but the people in their 50s and even in their 60s. That adds to the complexity.

In the next 5 to 10 years, there will be a lot of discussions on how to fill the missing places in industry to remain competitive. I also think that you can see the augmentation here as a fantastic tool together with the upskilling because upskilling the new skills together with the augmented tools like collaborative robots, like cognitive support, like whatever you can put in an iPhone, or whatever phone, or tool, or watch, or whatever, you can add the capability to make decisions. And that's the augmentation you will see.

And you will see a lot of digital twins try to foresee problems. You will see a lot of transversal technologies going from different high-tech industry into manufacturing industry to support especially the frontline people and to enable their innovation capabilities.

TROND: Johan, you said earlier that the complexity is higher at the level of frontline workers. Did you mean that, basically, the complexity of frontline work of itself at an individual level is also underestimated? Or were you simply saying that because there are so many frontline workers and the various situations of various types of frontline workers is so different that it's obviously an underappreciated management challenge? Or were you truly saying that frontline work in and of itself is either complicated or becoming more complex?

JOHAN: If a task was not automated, it is inherently complex. So you couldn't automate it, right?

TROND: Right.

JOHAN: Because if you can teach a robot or whatever to do tasks, then it's not difficult, and you can foresee the results. There was a lady called Lisanne Bainbridge. She put out The Paradox of Automation that the more you automate, the more dependent you become on the few people that are still there to handle the situations that are so complex that you could not foresee them.

So everything that is programmed is programmed by a programmer, and the programmer tries to foresee every foreseeable situation, and to that extent, the robots and the automation works. But if these situations go out of hand, if they're too complex, and something happens, then there is no robot that can fix that. Unfortunately, AI is not there yet.

TROND: Well, you said, "Unfortunately, AI is not there yet," but I would also conjecture that, fortunately, AI is not there yet because you're pointing to something missing, I think. And a lot of the AI debate is starting to come back now. And it was there in the '60s because people realized that for lots of different reasons, to have a human oversight over robotic processes is actually a good thing.

And you talked to me earlier about the experiments with imagining a trip to Mars and having to execute robotic actions on Mars in a control system environment where you actually had to foresee the action and plan; it was always a supervised type of situation. So the supervisory control concept has been there from the beginning of computing. If you were to think of a future where AI actually does get more advanced, and a lot of people feel like that's imminent, maybe you and I don't, but in any case, let's imagine that it does become more advanced and becomes sort of a challenge, how do we maintain human control over those kinds of decisions?

I mean, there are researchers that have imagined, you know, famously in Superintelligence, Bostrom imagines this paperclip factory that goes amok and starts to optimize for producing paperclips, and everyone is suddenly producing, you know, and the machine then just reallocates resources to this enormously ridiculous task of producing only paper clips. It's a very memorable example. But a lot of people feel that AI could soon or at some point reach that level. How do we, as a failsafe, avoid that that becomes an issue? Or do you see it as such a far-fetched topic in manufacturing that it would be decades, if not centuries, away?

JOHAN: I think that AI has been seasonal if you allow the expression. There's talk about these AI winters every now and then, and they tend to come every 10 or 15 years, and that matches two Ph.D. lifetimes, Ph.D. development. I mean, people tend to forget the problems, and then they tend to use these Gartner curves. If you look at the Gartner curve, you have the expectation part. I'm not being arrogant towards the AI research. I think that AI is fantastic, but it should be seen, from my perspective, as what it is, as an advanced form of automation that can be used as an augmentation tool.

I think it was Kasparov that started to collaborate with a chess computer maker or developer, and they won every tournament because the combination of the human and the chess computer was astounding. And now I think there are even competitions with chess computers plus chess experts comes with them.

There was, I think, in the 1800s, there was a traveling exhibitionist where they had the Mechanical Turk, I think it was called. It was a chess player that was competing then against the people in the audience. And actually, inside this box, there was a small human that was making all the chess moves. And they were beating all the chess champions. So there was a man inside this. I think that there is still a man inside a lot of the automation.

TROND: A man and a woman. I wanted to just lastly end on a more positive note because you told me earlier that you are more optimistic now than ten years ago on behalf of your industry that you've researched for so many years. Why is that?

JOHAN: I think that the technology, I mean, I'm a techno-optimist. And I think that we have also the full scale, the full attention from the ICT industry on various industrial processes right now. It was a lot of service-oriented. And I think that that is playing out now in the platform wars, the different services, but these different services are actually making a lot of good in the manufacturing and the tougher industries. And so, there is a bigger focus now on creating CO2-less steel. And there's an exploration of different industries that are going across; you look at the electrification of vehicles which is cutting across several sectors in the industry, automotive industry, electronics industry.

And I think that the problems in industry are becoming so complex. So the ICT attention is on industry now more than perhaps on consumers, as it were, and I think that that's promising. I see companies like Ericsson promoting 5G. I see companies doing the Amazon Web Services and such companies looking at services that are useful for industry. And that's also augmenting the people's capability in that sense, so that's why I'm so positive.

I see all the sensors coming. I see all the computing power coming into the hands of the frontline operators. And I see also the use for the upskilling and the skilling technologies that are emerging. How do you do that? What they do in Matrix when the leading lady downloads the instructions for the helicopter or motorcycle or whatever it is. But how do you do that in real life? How do you prepare for something that's coming in the next few minutes? That is something that people are now looking at using technologies, augmenting technologies, digital twins, and things like that in a completely different way than they were five years ago.

TROND: Wow. So these are exciting moments for learning in manufacturing with perhaps wide-ranging consequences if we succeed. Johan, I thank you so much for these reflections. You've spent a career investigating production systems, and manufacturing, and workers. And these are very rich debates. And it seems like they're not over, Johan. So, hopefully, we'll have you back when something happens. And we'll have you comment on some developments. Thank you very much.

JOHAN: Thank you, Trond. Thank you for a very interesting discussion. You always learn a lot by being asked a lot of questions, so thank you so much for this learning experience. Thank you.

TROND: You're very gracious. Thank you, Johan.

You have just listened to another episode of the Augmented Podcast with host Trond Arne Undheim. The topic was a Scandinavian Perspective on Industrial Operator Independence. Our guest was Johan Stahre, Professor and Chair of Production Systems at Chalmers University of Sweden. In this conversation, we talked about how the field of human-centered automation has evolved.

My takeaway is that human-centered automation is the only kind of automation that we should be thinking about, and this is becoming more and more clear. Operators are fiercely independent, and so should they be. This is the only way they can spot problems on the shop floor, by combining human skills with automation in new ways augmenting workers. It seems the workforce does not so much need engagement as they need enablement. Fix that, and a lot can happen. Thanks for listening.

If you liked the show, subscribe at augmentedpodcast.co or in your preferred podcast player, and rate us with five stars. If you liked this episode, you might also like Episode 84 on The Evolution of Lean with Professor Torbjørn Netland from ETH Zürich. Hopefully, you'll find something awesome in these or in other episodes and if so, do let us know by messaging us. We would love to share your thoughts with other listeners.

The Augmented Podcast is created in association with Tulip, the frontline operation platform that connects people, machines, devices, and systems in a production or logistics process in a physical location. Tulip is democratizing technology and empowering those closest to operations to solve problems. Tulip is also hiring, and you can find Tulip at tulip.co.

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