Photo: Joel Eden/Kiva Systems

Artificial intelligence is coming and workers may be more prepared for it than we think

Feb. 21, 2018
Survey says the logistics/transportation industry is already ahead of the game in discussing the potential uses of artificial intelligence.

It’s hard to imagine truckers embracing the wider use of artificial intelligence or “AI” within the freight transportation industry. I’m still quite leery of it myself, having watched The Terminator one too many times.

Yet, if a new global survey of nearly 3,000 employees across eight nations conducted by The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated is correct, it seems that more and more of them believe there is “a significant opportunity” for AI to help improve “the workplace experience” and, yes, believe it or not, the logistics/transportation sector is one of the leading industries in this regard.

The survey – dubbed Engaging Opportunity: Working Smarter with AI and conducted by Coleman Parkes Research – polled hourly and salaried workers across a variety of industries in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. Not only did the survey discern there may be more “ground level support” regarding the use of AI in the workplace, it also found that company management is being largely close-mouthed regarding AI developments – and that, not AI itself, is what’s sparking the most unease about the technology among workers.

Here are some findings to chew on:

  • Employees from all eight nations in this poll would welcome AI if it simplified or automated time-consuming internal processes (64%), helped better balance their workload (64%), increased fairness in subjective decisions (62%), or ensured managers made better choices affecting individual employees (57%).
  • Surprisingly, workers in Mexico are most enthusiastic about AI’s benefits, especially in terms of simplifying time-consuming processes (Mexico: 81%; Canada: 65%; U.S.: 62%) and better balance their workload (Mexico: 84%; U.S. 64%; Canada: 61%).
  • No surprise here: younger workers are far more supportive of AI usage in the workplace. Globally, 88% of Gen Z workers (aged 18 to 20) believe AI can improve their job in some manner. However, just 70% of Baby Boomers (55 and older) feel the same way.
  • Younger millennials (aged 21 to 27), older millennials (aged 28 to 37), and Gen X workers (38 to 54) in the U.S. and Canada think the biggest benefit of AI for them is elimination of manual processes and time wasted on basic administrative work, each of which “detracts from more rewarding workplace activities.” But when it comes to U.S. Baby Boomers 38% either don’t think or aren’t sure how AI would improve their job.
  • The poll also found that three out of every five international organizations (58%) have yet to discuss the potential impact of AI on their workforce with employees. And two-thirds of global employees (61%) said they’d feel far more comfortable if employers were more transparent about what the future may hold.
  • Interestingly, again, the U.S. is the most secretive when it comes to corporate plans for AI, with 67% of those U.S. employees polled reporting they have no knowledge of their organization’s plans for AI. Employees in Canada (66 %) and the United Kingdom (62%) are similarly in the dark, while the reverse is true in Mexico, where 67% of employees in said their organization has openly discussed AI with employees.
  • Then again, some U.S. industries are more “transparent” than others regarding discussions over the future of AI. Organizations in financial services/banking (38%), manufacturing (35%), and logistics/transportation (27%) are already discussing AI’s future impact on the workforce with employees.
  • In Canada, a similar finding: 37% of financial services organizations, 33% of manufacturing industries, 27% of logistics/transportation organizations have discussed the topic openly.
  • At the end of the day, though, the fear of being replaced by a machine is still quite prevalent. So while four out of five employees (82%) see opportunity for AI to improve their jobs, about a third (34%) expressed concern that AI could someday replace them altogether, including 42% of Gen Z employees; the youngest set in the workforce.

“Organizations are making significant investments in benefits, technology, and innovative workplaces, yet employees are working more than ever and engagement has remained stagnant for decades,” noted Joyce Maroney, executive director of The Workforce Institute at Kronos, in a statement.

“While emerging technologies always generate uncertainty, this survey shows employees worldwide share a cautious optimism that artificial intelligence is a promising tool,” she added. “It could pave the way for a game-changing employee experience if it is used to add fairness and eliminate low-value workplace processes and tasks, allowing employees to focus on the parts of their roles that really matter.”

While such “game-changing” instills a lot of worry in folks like myself, Jack Uldrich, a self-titled “global futurist,” explained last week during NATSO Connect 2018 – the annual convention of the trade group formerly known as the National Association of Truck Stop Operators – that though AI and other technological develops “makes this a confusing time for all of us,” the current workforce has already experienced this level of “transformative” change.

“Remember dial-up 56K modems? That was just 8,000 days ago,” he told the gathered audience. “We’re now at 4G bandwidth speeds; that’s a fourteen hundred-fold level of change and you’ve already lived through it.”

By 2020, he expects 5G bandwidth will be in place – which is a hundred-fold faster than 4G. And 5G will be one of the technological “backbones” required to support AI, autonomous vehicles (AVs) and much, much more.

“We’ve got 3D printing now, so instead of producing goods like running shoes in Asia, and then shipping them here to the U.S., we can custom make shoes that fit your foot right here in your community,” Uldrich said. “And now they are using 3D printing to make houses. And it is things like that which will change global supply chains faster than we’re ready for.”

Not only, then, must we be prepared for the world to change due to a wide range of technological advancements (including AI and “smart machines”) but it will change far faster than we are prepared for, he warned.

Another example Uldrich pointed to: Uber and Lyft drivers. “Ten years ago, neither of them could exist; we didn’t have the technology,” he noted. “Now they are $100 billion a year businesses. So now, instead of owning cars, the younger generation may trade away ownership for real-time access to mobility.”

[Another NATSO speaker added that it only took Uber and Lyft nine years to establish a pool of over 1 million ride-hailing drivers; by comparison it took trucking 100 years to create a pool of 3.5 million truck drivers.]

And while many might worry about a generation forgoing a $30,000-plus investment (at the low end) in a new set of wheels every few years, Uldrich emphasized that $30,000 will now get spent elsewhere – with the “where” an open question yet to be answered.

“The point is that, in a world of exponential change, what worked before will not work down the road,” he stressed. “It means all us need to keep an open mind about the future, because it is simply not going to unfold like we expect. Also, remember this: technology is great, but can it do everything? No. Not for a moment do I think that. But we tend to get so ‘locked up’ in our industries from a day-to-day perspective that we forget to look for the future opportunities inherent in all of this change. You need to be prepared and you need to think differently because you will only continue to experience rapid change.”

Something to keep in mind as trucking continues to barrel towards the future.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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