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AI and Automation: Aides, not adversaries

The rise of AI and Automation has led to concerns about their dangers. But here is how robots are transforming the logistics industry for the better.
The rise of AI and Automation has led to concerns about their dangers. But here is how robots are transforming the logistics industry for the better.
10 May 2024 •

The latest Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution took off in 2022 when ChatGPT came onto the scene. Just two months after its release, it became one of the fastest-growing software products in history. According to The New York Times, it gained more than 30 million users and received five million visits a day.

Since then, the creators of ChatGPT have released a newer version called GPT-4, while the rest of the big technology companies have followed suit. Google launched Bard, Amazon unveiled Q, and X, formerly Twitter, previewed Grok.

In the same way that certain intellectual tasks are being outsourced to AI, automation is gradually being incorporated into manual labor tasks in the workforce. Automated robots are becoming more commonplace beyond the tech industry, with manufacturing and logistics companies, retailers, and even the food and beverage industries taking on automation both within and beyond the warehouse.

As a result, concerns that AI and automation will replace humans across various jobs have grown in tandem, with a slew of reports forecasting that robots will render millions of jobs defunct over the next decade or so.

“Accelerated by the pandemic, we have seen supply chain automation at the forefront of the investments needed to get better agility and ensure supply chain resilience,” said Dr Klaus Dohrmann, Vice President, Head of Innovation and Trend Research at DHL Customer Solutions and Innovation. “And with tech companies coming up with innovations at an unprecedented speed, we will inevitably see greater adoption in different areas.”

Robots: A catalyst for workforce transformation

Concerns about AI and automation replacing jobs are not unfounded.

The AI arms race is revolutionizing the way we work. Industries from banking and finance to legal services have adopted AI into their business processes. According to the Cambridge Center for Alternative Finance and the World Economic Forum, 56 percent of banks claim they have implemented AI into their business domains like management, and 52 percent claim that they have used AI for revenue generation.

Similarly, as AI impacts white-collar jobs, automation has put pressure on jobs that require manual labor. For instance, Tesla recently unveiled the Tesla Bot, or Optimus, an autonomous android made to replace humans in dangerous repetitive jobs. Tesla CEO Elon Musk intends to place these robots in Tesla factories and expand to millions of operations around the world. According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Boston University report, AI is expected to replace as many as two million manufacturing workers by 2025.

A report by investment bank Goldman Sachs found that AI could replace the equivalent of 300 million full-time jobs. But that may not be a bad thing. David Autor of MIT estimated that 60 percent of workers are in occupations that did not exist in 1940 — such as cybersecurity and e-commerce. Just like any other technological advancement that came before it, AI and automation will change the workforce and push us to evolve.

Like the Industrial Revolution, which forced people to move from manual labor to machine-based manufacturing, the AI revolution will free up time for humans to spend on more productive and creative tasks.

Automated picking robots help to locate and transport parcels within the warehouse, saving employees time and energy.
Automated picking robots help to locate and transport parcels within the warehouse, saving employees time and energy.

Consultancy firm Accenture estimates that as much as 40 percent of all working hours will be supported or augmented by language-based AI offering services from grammar-error-correction to transcription and translation, minimizing the challenge of language barriers.

Similarly, the notion of automation may often be visualized as sophisticated robots. But at its core, automation is about implementing a system to complete repetitive and easily replicated tasks without the need for human labor. For smaller companies, this can be as simple as housing a set of tools within common business software programs that employees can learn to use.

While AI and robots can take over some jobs, they will always lack something that people have — the human touch.

The logistics field, for one, has been one of the industries that have embraced automation over the past decade. And yet, Dr Dohrmann remains confident that the logistics industry is likely to remain reliant on humans.

As Dr Dohrmann noted: “Logistics is clearly a human-centric business. We may implement AI and technology within the supply chain, but our colleagues are the ones driving logistics all around the world.”

Indeed, organization involves a wide range of tasks that require a combination of human judgement, problem-solving skills, and physical labor. These include inventory management, transportation planning, order fulfillment, and customer service.

While AI can assist with some tasks, such as optimizing shipping routes and predicting demand, many other logistics aspects require human input. For example, logistics involves partnerships with clients, customers, and suppliers, which makes relationship-building a key aspect of the industry. AI will never be able to connect, communicate and collaborate with others at the levels that humans can.

This extends to gaps within industry practices that can be improved, especially in terms of ethical and responsible practices. Whether it be related to fair labor practices, sustainable sourcing, or implementing corporate social responsibility initiatives, these are blind spots that AI might miss without the discernment humans possess.

AI as an extension of manpower

Simply put, AI and automation can augment and enhance rather than replace. Technology will continue to work alongside human workers to improve efficiency and productivity in logistics operations.

For instance, collaborative robots designed for flexible applications that require interactions with humans will help the logistics industry be more efficient, boosting health and safety in the workplace. Across DHL’s global network of warehouses and factories, 5,000 robotic order pickers now pluck parcels from shelves, increasing the number of items picked per hour by 180 percent.

This reduces the physical stress on workers and allows them to work on more value-adding tasks that require human intelligence, such as conducting quality control checks, and handling exceptions such as damaged goods.

Investments in equipment such as wearable sensors and exoskeletons are also used to support workers, enabling them to lift heavy parcels with less strain, thus lowering the risk of them injuring themselves during work.
Investments in equipment such as wearable sensors and exoskeletons are also used to support workers, enabling them to lift heavy parcels with less strain, thus lowering the risk of them injuring themselves during work.

But as much as humans must adapt to keep up with technology, technology must be adjusted to ensure it fits our needs. For instance, DHL Supply Chain implemented exoskeletons that would minimize injury risk for warehouse workers. However, the DHL Supply Chain team received feedback from the employees that the exoskeleton gear was too hot to be worn in the warehouse. Modifications were hence made to create a lighter, more practical version of the exoskeleton vests, made from a more breathable material.

“Every technology project is ultimately also a change management project, where we need to take our colleagues along with implementing new technologies and support them in being even more successful and efficient by using the technology,” explained Dr Dohrmann.

As AI replaces some jobs, others will be created. It is vital that organizations update their training and development processes to upskill and reskill workers accordingly, so that employees are prepared to fill those vacancies.

With the cost of implementing automation continuing to fall, its viability as a long-term solution is being solidified.

And as the industry implements more AI and automation, jobs will inevitably evolve to become less dangerous and more streamlined. Humans will be pushed to change and evolve, and must adapt or risk falling behind, but the responsibility lies with society to shape and pace the transition.


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