“Alexa, where’s my job?”
This is the question many executives in the supply-chain arena—in fact, a great deal of all people involved in the supply chain—are asking themselves today. Interestingly, they really might be asking this question of Amazon’s Alexa, the most consumer-oriented example of artificial intelligence on the market.
According to different studies and reports, the answer to this question may be far better news for the supply-chain workforce than we might initially believe. Before we get to that, however, we first need to define artificial intelligence.
AI, as it is most commonly called, refers to intelligence demonstrated by machines as opposed to natural intelligence, which is intelligence demonstrated by humans. It can be described as "automation software" that instructs machines to replace or mimic humans who perform repetitive tasks.
Other definitions—and beliefs—about AI include the following:
- A device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of successfully achieving its goals
- A system with the ability to correctly interpret external data, to learn from such data, and to use those learnings to achieve specific goals and tasks through flexible adaptation
- A system that will replace humans altogether
This last belief about AI is the most disconcerting. But according to a recent Pew Research study, it’s not that uncommon. In fact, 72 percent of Americans believe this is pretty much "right on." They believe AI will either shred (minimize) or replace their jobs in the coming years.
Not so fast. According to Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI, a new book by Paul Daugherty and H. James Wilson, AI's real power will be its ability to assist humans, helping them perform work-related tasks more effectively. It will also supplement their capabilities, according to the authors, and this will be especially evident in the supply-chain industry. They argue that this collaboration between humans and machines will benefit supply-chain businesses overall and create at least three new AI-driven jobs.4
These three new jobs are the following:
- The Trainers. For any AI system to work effectively, they must be trained. In other words, these systems must be instructed how to perform specific tasks and mimic human behaviors.A perfect example of this is in the professional cleaning industry. A new generation of floor machines that clean and scrub floors in commercial facilities autonomously is having a big impact on the industry. But to make it effective, humans had to teach the machine the tasks it must perform.
- The Explainers. Invariably, the floor machines we just discussed are more costly than traditional floor machines. Because of this, management will wonder if they are worth the costs and if there is a return on the investment. The explainers will be tasked with providing this information as well as looking for new ways to use AI technologies so that they can prove their value.
- The Sustainers. As AI technologies prove their value, the sustainers will be tasked with ensuring these systems "stay true to their original goals without crossing ethical lines or reinforcing biases," according to one analysis.
Although many believe the benefits of AI will ultimately outweigh any drawbacks and it will create new jobs, we cannot deny it will also create new challenges for both management and workers in the supply-chain industry.
For instance, lower-level jobs in the supply-chain industry currently performed by people will likely be replaced. However, in the floor-cleaning machine example earlier, although these new machines may have replaced some custodial workers, what appears to be the larger trend is that they are freeing up cleaning workers to perform other tasks. These are tasks that are often put on hold or performed only as time allows. The net result is that more cleaning and more effective cleaning is performed, keeping the facility cleaner and healthier for building users.
Staying One Step Ahead
The supply-chain workforce will need to become much more flexible and adaptable. Some jobs that appear secure today may be turned over to AI systems tomorrow. And this may happen at all levels in the supply chain, from management on down.
This does not mean humans will be replaced. Instead, the affected workforce will need to stay one step ahead of these AI advances. We do this as a business and individually through training and education programs. All workers will need to adjust from being primarily "doers" to becoming primarily "thinkers."
As AI technology begins to play a more extensive role in supply- operations, executives will need to make sure they have the people—not machines—to oversee the technology. In other words, they will need trainers, explainers, and sustainers. By creating these new roles and positions, AI will improve supply-chain operations, along with the bottom line.
Michael Wilson is AFFLINK’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications.