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Will artificial intelligence remove humans from future supply chains?

Posted by CeMAT Team on 05-May-2017 16:00:50

Will artificial intelligence remove humans from future supply chains?

Machines are becoming increasingly capable of doing more than just the menial tasks traditionally done by humans. We’re also beginning to see the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) that could eventually replace cognitive tasks once thought only intelligent organic beings could possess.

Developments in AI are constantly pushing the barriers of the role and place of technology in society. Although AI might be thought of as an extreme prognostication that is yet to materialise, the term artificial intelligence was first coined in 1955. Since then we’ve looked to find new ways of improving and applying AI, and we haven’t really looked back since.

Decades of development – half a decade to more precise – have led us to a place where AIs role in industry is growing. New doors for supply chain automation have opened as innovative technologies have over-taken many of the labour intensive tasks that once restricted the growth of business.

If you’re new to the idea of AI, this post is for you. Here we look at the capabilities of AI in a broad sense before we drill down into the future of machine learning in the supply chain.


Understanding the capability of AI


In 1949, Edmund Berkley wrote a 300-page ode to machines that resemble the human brain titled “Giant Brains: Or Machines That Think”. Berkley describes the first computers as “strange giant machines that can handle information with vast speed and skill”. Essentially he is describing a mechanical object with the qualities and functionality of the human brain:

“These machines are similar to what a brain would be if it were made of hardware and wire instead of flesh and nerves… A machine can handle information; it can calculate, conclude, and choose; it can perform reasonable operations with information. A machine, therefore, can think.”

We’ve come along way since 1949. Today, most of our phones have AI with speech recognition technology as well as the ability to perform actions based on requests. Just looking at the technology behind Siri alone and how it has changed the way we interact with devices is enough to see how beneficial AI is to everyday life.

Eventually, we will be able to interact with AI interfaces in a multitude of contexts; from within our own homes, to the computers we work with, and to the technology that is automating and tracking the performance of our supply chains.

Edmund Berkley: A machine can handle information

Putting aside the fact that some experts have predicted that AI will eventually turn us into superhumans, supply chains across the globe will eventually be monitored, assessed, and in some cases even designed by AI.

Artificial intelligence in supply chain management will help businesses manage inventory safety levels, design transportation networks, and helping with demand planning and forecasting. (You can check out more about demand forecasting from machine learning in one of our previous posts). 

There is one great advantage artificial intelligence has over the human brain when managing the supply chain. Because AI can make fact-based decisions (based off vast amounts of transactional and historical data), we will eventually see sentient supply chains in the future – supply chains that are able to feel, perceive and react to situations.



Automation: why does it scare so many people today?


Contrary to popular belief, man and machine have worked together since Ancient Roman farmers adopted plows to sow their seeds more efficiently. But today, thought is divided as to whether machine learning in industry will be beneficial, or detrimental to humans.

Henry Ford adopted the assembly line in 1913, and since then has been regarded as the father of mass production. Although it also has its critics, but without mass production we wouldn’t have the quality of life we have today. The same argument can be made for AI.

It is true; artificial intelligence will replace many of the jobs currently done by humans. But that doesn’t mean that all jobs (including unforeseen jobs created in the distant future) will be usurped by our emerging mechanical-minded counterparts.

According to McKinsey, there is a difference between predictable physical work and unpredictable physical work, and this makes a significant impact on the feasibility of replacing human labour with AI. Rather than AI completely taking over the human labour force, roles and responsibilities will shift.

predictable and unpredictable jobs.png 

The human-element in future supply chains will never really be totally eliminated – and that’s not just because we still need the engineers that build self-learning robots. Self-learning machines can only base their decisions and recommendations off pre-programmed algorithms that are written by humans. You’ll also need to make sure that your fully automated supply chain has soft skills when interacting with consumers.


Artificial intelligence is an incredibly vast and complex topic to cover, so these are just a few small ways AI will change supply chain management in the future. Have you got any other ideas as to how AI will transform supply chain management? Let us know if the comments below.

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Topics: Supply Chain Management