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Will IoT create the next Luddite movement?

Back in the early 1800s, there was a shift in the English textile industry as the Industrial Revolution took hold. Machinery in the form of automated looms and knitting frames was introduced into textile plants, displacing skilled workers who were slower and more expensive than these new contraptions. A group of textile workers started destroying their employers’ machinery to slow down the rate of adoption and protest the way machines were replacing humans. This ultimately fruitless effort became known as the Luddite Movement.

Today, people are most familiar with the internet of things through consumer-facing applications such as smartphones, wearables and smart refrigerators. What they may be less aware of, however, is how quickly IoT is making its way into the enterprise market by allowing manual tasks to be replaced with network-connected sensors. I am constantly impressed with the innovative ways our customers are using IoT devices in their organizations.

What may be even less apparent to the common consumer is the rapid job destruction that could take place as the speed of development and connected devices continues to accelerate. Is the enterprise IoT industry ready for blowback that could be caused by the transition pains these connected devices are almost sure to create?

If you look at the wide variety of IoT applications, this new technology touches every corner of the enterprise economy in terms of improving efficiency. These devices have great potential to increase productivity and efficiency while also reducing the need for human labor.

One beverage distribution company installed a very impressive system that breaks down and repackages beverage cases through automation and sensors. The connected product count of its warehouse tripled while its peak volume capacity increased fourfold. In addition, its inventory accuracy went from 95% to 99.99%. The downside for employees was the elimination of 25 full-time employees. Fortunately for them, in this scenario, they were reassigned to other tasks at the company. That won’t always be the case.

Take that one example and start multiplying it around the country or world. Connected cars are making huge strides in their capabilities, yet one in seven jobs is still tied to transportation in the U.S. Between newer companies, like Uber, Tesla and Otto, and traditional manufacturers, like Ford, Toyota and Mercedes, the race for self-driving technologies has already started.

It is estimated that 38% of jobs in the U.S. are at high risk for being automated and replaced by 2030. The jobs most likely to be automated and replaced include those in transportation and storage (56%), manufacturing (46%) and retail (44%). Fortunately, of those jobs that have already been lost, nearly 80% have been replaced and upgraded, which is great for young employees and those capable of learning new skills. Technology has created exciting workforce opportunities that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

But what happens if we reach a tipping point where the number of jobs destroyed exceeds the number of jobs created (or the jobs created cannot be filled by the individuals whose jobs were destroyed)? Things may become problematic.

How would continued job destruction lead to limitations for IoT development? A few examples of Luddite-like activity as a result of job losses that could impede progress or acceptance of IoT include:

  • Security — The lack of standards and Wild West environment of IoT today could be used by social hackers to bring down job-destroying devices. Disabling every connected meter means humans must go out and check them instead.
  • Regulation — Will gains in efficiencies be reduced by government regulation that only has one goal in mind: preventing job losses? Will automated trucks require a human operator to drive on public roads, completely negating the technology’s cost benefits?
  • Employee revolt — Could full-on resistance toward connected devices by employees who feel their jobs may be threatened impact the success of future IoT projects?

I am certainly not arguing that technology is a bad thing. Connected devices can perform repetitive tasks with more accuracy and much cheaper than manual labor, often replacing jobs that are undesirable and hard to fill in the first place. We implement connected devices and automations to help make ourselves more efficient and scalable. Even so, it’s good to be aware of any potential long-term impacts your company could experience as the world continues to become more automated and connected.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.