What the Heck Is Automation Anyway?

What the Heck Is
Automation Anyway?

Living in the Digital Era, the concept of automation is no stranger. From scheduled social media posts to driverless cars, automation pervades our lives whether at work, at home, or on the road. By now, most of us have examined and reexamined our needs for automation, and although it comes with a decreased sense of privacy amongst other trade-offs, automation, it seems, is here to stay.

The concept of automation can be traced back to as early as 762 B.C. in Ancient Greece. Homer’s The Illiad depicts Hephaestus, the God of Fire and Craftsmanship, to have had automatons running around in his workshop. Crafted out of metal to animate men, animals and monsters, these self-operated robots assisted in developing powerful weapons and tools for the Gods.

Talos the Bronze Automaton
(Archaeological National Museum Jatta)

Automation in the Industrial Revolution

While the Ancient Greeks developed the concept early on, the term was not in use until the Industrial Revolution. Specifically, it was the Ford Motor Company that introduced the assembly line in 1913, creating one of the pioneer types of automation in the manufacturing industry. Thanks to this new method of production, the time it took to assemble a car reduced from twelve hours per car to one and a half hours. The term was then coined in 1946 by Ford’s Executive Vice President, Delmar S. Harder, who defined automation as “the automatic transfer of auto parts from one metalworking machine to the next.”

Henry Ford’s moving assembly line
(Fotosearch/Getty Images)

During the Second World War, automation became imperative in manufacturing fighter planes, landing crafts, warships and tanks. After the war, Japan followed in these footsteps and initiated the Industrial Rebuilding Program, resulting in the production of numerous high-quality, reliable cars including Honda, Toyota, and Nissan, which have since become reputable for their quality and low costs.

Man’s Counterpart

While automation clearly improved the costs and efficiency of manufacture and production processes, some believed that automation would also become beneficial to humankind’s spiritual growth. One such figure was Nikola Tesla, the genius/madman credited with the invention of alternating current. Tesla believed that all living beings could be described as automata, a person or animal that acts in a monotonous, routine manner without the use of active intelligence. Driven by external impulses, few automata are truly able to follow their internal thoughts, which was the cause of misery in the world according to Tesla.

This inspired him to construct an automaton – Intended to be man’s mechanical counterpart, the automaton had the means for motion, direction and sensors to get impressions of the outside world. It possessed all the main mechanical characteristics and properties of living things, such as independent thought and action (but Tesla felt that some other properties, such as reproduction, should not be copied at all). At the center of it all, Tesla believed that this machine would help reduce human effort, increase productivity, and ultimately enable us to focus on our internal thoughts, freeing us to achieve our true purpose in life. To Tesla, this was something higher and more significant than basic human needs, which he hoped the automatons would come to replace.

The Tesla Teleautomaton at
Madison Square Garden’s first Electrical Exhibition, 1898

In 1898, he took a remote-controlled boat and navigated it through the Madison Square Garden in New York. Using a wireless command post, the robot-boat received radio waves and moved at Tesla’s behest. A curious but doubtful crowd was convinced that it was magic or telepathy, while some more creative minds reasoned that the boat must have been piloted by a trained monkey hidden inside.

Fearing the Unknown

However, despite its importance to progress even to the Ancient Greeks, automation has historically often been met with doubts and fears. Tesla’s inventions, though notable, were not the only ones met with doubt and resistance. When the Wright Brothers first claimed to have created successful flying machines, European newspapers accused them of being bluffeurs – bluffers; and lest we forget the introduction of cameras, which were believed to steal one’s soul. Understandably, it is always difficult to accept the unknown, especially when it threatens to change some established ways of life. Automation has eliminated the need for manual labor in countless industries, reducing costs, improving efficiency, and changing the way things are done across all sectors.

The use of the word “automation” has also since evolved, moving from the industrial world into the IT world, where its definition is now inclusive of modern inventions: “The automatically-controlled operation of an apparatus, process, or system by mechanical or electronic devices that take the place of human labor.” With automation in IT, the goal is to improve general efficiency with self-sufficient processes, replacing the IT worker’s manual labor in data centers and cloud deployments. Today, automation in manufacturing relies primarily on computer and software capabilities to automate, integrate and optimize different components of manufacturing systems.

The future of automation is difficult to predict, but it doesn’t take an expert to see that with the right mindset and policies, automation can be used to significantly increase efficiency, creativity, and standards of living. In the next few posts, I will be covering all major aspects that one should consider in the age of automation.

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