For decades, the industrial workforce in the US has been in decline, with human production increasingly moving offshore, where labor can be had for pennies on the dollar, or being replaced altogether by machines.
Looking forward 10 years, it is easy to imagine a future in which this trend has continued and few, if any, industrial jobs are still performed by human hands. But this will not be the case. In fact, there is a host of new technologies emerging in Silicon Valley at this very moment that have the potential -- and increasingly the promise -- to turn the tides for the industrial workforce of the future and set the stage for a resurgence by discovering the keys to unlock human potential.
Today, three areas of development promise to recalibrate the limits of human productivity and pioneer the next industrial revolution: the physical Web, artificial intelligence, and smart glasses.
Google recently announced the pending arrival of the physical Web -- an early stage, experimental project aimed at developing a new Internet protocol that will provide critical infrastructure for bringing currently unconnected devices online. Frequently referred to as the Internet of Things or the Internet of Everything, the physical Web aims to allow anyone to "walk up and use anything."
For consumers, this means you'll be able to walk up to a bus stop and use your smartphone to find out when the next bus will arrive, without downloading any apps. For the enterprise, the applications are far more exciting. Imagine workers being able to walk into any storage room or company truck for the first time and know exactly what items they need for a given project, where each is located, and how much stock remains.
Up to this point, the primary method for identifying objects through computing has been image recognition. That process entails identifying an object’s unique characteristics and cross-referencing those data points against vast stores of data. In industrial applications, such as pallet-building optimization in warehousing or equipment identification and predictive visualization on oil and gas rigs, this method requires far too much processing power to accomplish the task efficiently in real-time.
In contrast, when every object broadcasts a unique Web address, the system can identify and provide descriptive information for every object within a given proximity -- all while using a fraction of the computing power presently required to perform the same task. This has considerable implications for unlocking productivity.
Science fiction gives artificial intelligence a bad rap. No, supercomputers will not enslave the human race; they will, however, unlock efficiencies at scales never before thought possible.
In a nutshell, what AI does is solve problems that are beyond the reach of the human brain. For industrial applications, this means unlocking the ability to identify patterns and spot potential problems or inefficiencies amid a mountain of data, in real-time. Enterprises could collect and analyze data on the fly to make decisions about how to maximize efficiency or, depending on the application, minimize risk.
For industrial enterprises leveraging the physical Web to improve their operations, artificial intelligence will provide the means for mapping all of the signals broadcast by previously unconnected devices and efficiently parsing the data so that leaders can make inferences upon which to act.
Imagine how AI might impact a long-haul trucking fleet. With a specialized heads-up display helping truck drivers make decisions, fleets could potentially transport goods farther and faster, all while increasing the safety of its drivers and the efficiency of its operations.
The technology that perhaps bears the most promise (and is certainly the most intriguing) is the smart glasses platform. In their current form, smart glasses are optical devices that provide users with hands-free remote computer access. Already, smart glasses are bringing computing and communications to places where traditional options are not currently available or practical. (Disclosure: Atheer, where I'm CEO, is developing 3D-augmented reality glasses.)
We think of smart glasses as the piece that ties the toolkit together -- the interface to access and leverage the power of the physical Web and artificial intelligence on the job. In 10 years' time, these three technologies, working together in synchrony, will become the standard set of technology tools for industrial workers.
In a warehousing logistics scenario, for instance, workers equipped with such systems could optimize the workflow of every pallet build, from picking order to item stacking, regardless of past warehousing experience. In an industry such as oil and gas, where human error can have disastrous consequences, equipping field workers with these systems while performing safety checks could mean the difference between life and death.
However, smart glass technologies currently come up short in their ability to deliver a truly interactive experience -- one that can provide a computing canvas that lets users intuitively manipulate data and build rather than simply view. This is what will take this space to the next level.
As these new technologies begin making their way into the field, disruption is bound to follow. The companies that succeed in adopting these and other next-generation tools will likely find an edge on their competition, and incumbents may well find themselves unseated by an upstart. If you have an industrial workforce, watch this space.Alberto Torres is CEO of Atheer, which provides a platform for 3D augmented reality. A mobility industry veteran, Torres most recently led HP's efforts in tablets and in enterprise mobility software. Before that,he ran a number of businesses at Nokia, including the innovative ... View Full Bio