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With Artificial Intelligence, don’t forget the hardware
Fri, 23rd Feb 2024

While AI pioneer Sam Altman from Open AI and ex-Apple design czar Jony Ive are reportedly developing an undisclosed artificial intelligence (AI) device, there must be a broader conversation about the hardware involved. There's a whole host of moving parts to get right when it comes to the software, including data quality, the model, the logic, and even safety and security. Once you've solved these insanely complex issues, the next logical step is the vehicle on which to run it. Specifically, before we inject it eagerly into the Boston Dynamics robot fleet, let's not leave behind the frontline human workforce in this delicate balance of progress.   

Why this conversation matters: roughly 80% of the entire global workforce (over 2 billion people) are currently classified as frontline workers. The deskless workforce is found within retail, healthcare, and the supply chain sector, including manufacturing, warehousing, transportation and logistics. These workers often cannot use cell phones due to connectivity, security, and safety concerns, so they end up pulling information from outdated manuals, having an expert fly in to solve the issue, or are simply left in the dark. We can no longer afford to overlook these issues. 
 
Building hardware for AI levels the entire playing field 

If we get the hardware part right next and are thinking of those frontline workers who must keep both of their hands-free for manual work, there will truly be an exceptional AI revolution at a global scale rather than providing a VIP AI pass to the usual suspects - the knowledge worker or the consumer. Let's let the quest for abundant intelligence—and possibly Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)-- include those two billion frontline workers by thinking about the hardware that can accommodate their needs now. 
 
What happens if the robots replace me? 

I often think about the picture of the construction workers sitting 850 feet above the pavement on a steel girder eating lunch in the famously staged photo of 1932. It shouldn't take a special advertising campaign to remember the builders, makers and creators who built the infrastructure that still stands today. These frontline workers are behind the factory walls assembling our Wayfair furniture, packing Amazon boxes to send to us, cooking us our dinners in their ghost kitchens, and delivering Christmas presents to us on the same day. With all the AI noise, I guarantee a thought hasn't popped in their head: "What happens when the AI robots replace me?" 

The right answer is they shouldn't. 

It must be recognised that frontline workers are the real backbone of most companies, with nearly 90% of all companies depending on frontline workers, These workers do critical tasks.    

There is no sign that the hiring landscape for frontline workers is stabilising. The number of job openings in frontline worker industries in July 2023 was 25% higher than two years ago. Concurrently, quit rates have escalated to the highest levels recorded since the onset of the pandemic, according to a survey from recruiting firm Fountain. One driving force in this is simply the lack of empowerment. They're feeling disconnected from the rest of the company, with 77% of frontline workers expressing frustration that they're not even receiving adequate information from the head office to do their jobs well.   

There is a strong sentiment that technology does not always mix well with frontline workers. The frustration isn't just with the technology itself but how it's implemented and managed within the workplace. Workers feel isolated and impotent when faced with technology that creates friction rather than facilitating their work. The cry for better technology also includes better management practices around it.  

This causes workers to feel left behind by rapid technological advancements, particularly when there is inadequate training or support to help them adapt. In other words, poor implementation of approved technology hurts more than it helps and creates more barriers, which risks the technology being outright rejected. We've all experienced this phenomenon when receiving a useless answer from ChatGPT or trying to get Alexa to add a simple alarm with the noisy oven hood fan on. 
 
AI for Frontline Workers: The New Hope

Despite these disconcerting statistics, there is also a significant level of optimism among frontline workers regarding technology, with 63% expressing excitement about the job opportunities it creates, according to Microsoft's Work Trend Index Special Report. In fact, technology is considered one of the top three factors that could help reduce workplace stress. To put a fine point on it, in the UK, more than half (52%) of frontline workers indicated that they would actually quit their job if not provided with the latest digital technology, according to Deloitte. 

AI will offer frontline workers a fundamental perception shift about how they view and interact with technologies and the work. Multi-modal AI removes friction and will soon enable a useful bond with a frontline worker that was simply not possible before this year. One can only guess that the reason ChatGPT broke records as the fastest-growing user base is that not only did the technology generally work as promised, but it also felt natural to interact with. 

AI has the potential to change the narrative from a doomsday "lights-out" factory to a brighter people-based future when combined with the right wearable. The thirst for knowledge will only grow in factories and hospitals as the problems we're expected to solve grow. By combining wearables with AI, we're entering a new era of greater technology utilisation and adoption. 

We've come a long way since the first industrial robot, Unimate, was quietly launched in 1961 at a General Motors plant whose job was to drop red-hot door handles into vats of cooling liquid. Ironically, there was little pushback then, given this was a dangerous job nobody wanted to do.  

Today, there are 3 million industrial robots in automated production, and they are expected to displace 97 million jobs by 2025. In the next decade, don't be surprised to see half of all frontline workers wearing some form of a hands-free AI device working alongside our robot partners. We just need to design this into our AI future.