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Seeking Workplace Automation that Coaches, Not Exploits

Yesterday, president Obama announced new manufacturing innovation institutes aimed to connect workers, technology, and skills. “[W]e’ve got to make sure we’re on the cutting edge of new manufacturing techniques and technologies,” he said.

Some welcome increased use of technology and automation in the workplace. “The automation doesn’t replace us. It makes us better,” claimed the authors of The Decoded Company in Wired magazine last week. “Far from our workforce fearing automation, we need to embrace it — especially if we focus on designing the technology as a coach.” (The article continues to describe how UPS software helps drivers find their way.)

But automated workplaces can just as easily create difficult and hostile working environments, as many exposés of high-tech warehouses have shown. For example, Stephen Dallal, who worked at an Amazon warehouse for about six months reported “It just got harder and harder. It started with 75 pieces an hour. Then 100 pieces an hour. Then 125 pieces an hour. They just got faster and faster and faster.”

We should hope for technologies that coach and compliment human workers. But workplace advocates must be ready to demand it. The alternative is already apparent.

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