Lessons learnt from designing Industry 4.0
Back in 2016, the term ‘Industry 4.0’ had gathered momentum in boardrooms, white papers and discussions among colleagues. It signalled a shift toward embracing new digital capabilities that enable digital devices to interface with the physical environment.
Think robots that can deftly navigate through dangerous environments, and autonomous sensors that can monitor outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish on the Great Barrier Reef.
Artificial intelligence, blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT), extended reality and robotics were identified then – and still are – on the frontier of emerging technologies most likely to disrupt current industries and drive the development of new ones.
Recognising the need to revolutionise our ability to capture data, and learn about the world at multiple scales, organisations including CSIRO started to reassess the way that they conducted science and technology research.
Harnessing the revolution
In 2017, CSIRO (initially through its Active Integrated Matter Future Science Platform, and later, the Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform) partnered with RMIT to explore the intersection of digital and physical technologies.
The focus of the partnership was harnessing the scientific advances presented by the intersection of big data, advanced autonomous systems and materials science.
One big question loomed ahead: how should we design the new tools and ways of working required by such change?
Defining a common vision
RMIT’s Dr Lisa Dethridge, a multiform media designer, author and producer, is specialist in ethical AI, robotics and the virtual world and has been working with CSIRO since 2017 to help design Industry 4.0 technologies.
While the speed of today’s technological advances is bewildering, Dethridge advocates cautious optimism. She points to global progress made by research into responsible science and technology development.
“We know that our biases are often reflected in social media, and that errors in the manipulation of data in AI programs can have unintended consequences.
“There is increasing recognition of the importance of multidisciplinary teams in providing a diversity of design perspectives and approaches.
“That way, design projects using data science can be enriched by multiple viewpoints including social science, arts and humanities, alongside those of data analytics and engineering.”
Testing solutions with research, government and industry
Dethridge’s work with CSIRO on the design of future technologies has canvassed the role of blockchain, agricultural technologies and augmented reality applications. She has convened three industry sprints on these topics drawing together experts and researchers from across both STEM and humanities including RMIT Blockchain Hub, RMIT Schools of Design, Media and Communication, Engineering, and Computer Science and CSIRO’s Data61 labs.
These meetings attracted industry participants from a variety of design fields including engineering, pharmaceuticals, government, banking, education, architecture, biotech, agritech, game design and computer science.
Each sprint identified challenges about the design and application of new tools such as how to use blockchain as a new supply chain mechanism to execute smart contracts; how to use augmented reality to enhance the connection of people to the natural environment or how to ensure that robotics are deployed in a way that protects human interests at all costs.
Most recently, Dethridge convened and moderated a multidisciplinary panel on Ethics and AI, which brought together expertise across engineering, science, law, design and ethics. The panel was a feature session at RMIT’s launch of the new Centre for Industrial AI Research and Innovation (CIARI), which is dedicated to making AI solutions accessible to industry. Similarly the panel and the audience debated how ethics could also be made more accessible as a standard element of the design and use of AI technologies.
Kickstarting thinking with the future workforce
A core element of Dethridge’s work has been focused squarely on skilling up the future workforce: the researchers who will be entering the workforce during Industry 4.0 and designing Industry 4.0 technologies. Were they equipped with the tools to be making ethical and sustainability decisions around design?
To find out, Dethridge developed new postgraduate design challenges, or ‘studios’, offered jointly across RMIT’s Schools of Media and Communication and Design:
- RMIT Industrial Design students came up with AI chatbots to assist in a diverse range of applications across mental health, biotechnology and consumer arenas. One chatbot was designed to help kids cope with school bullies; another to help diabetes patients self-administer their insulin; another to guide people toward appropriate garbage recycling methods.
- Another studio project focussed on the design of chatbots themselves. It explored the role of chatbots in advising the human user on various ethical or responsible approaches to the design and development of applications using AI.
These design challenges revealed that the relationship between AI-driven technologies and human users was becoming more complex, with trust emerging as a key priority.
What did we learn?
Industry 4.0 is being driven by data analytics and artificial intelligence which are now being applied at large scale. It’s clear that today’s young people are already tightly focused on its benefits and how they might play a role in it, as well as the circular economy and sustainable development.
Both RMIT and CSIRO teams have recognised the importance of designing technologies upon a solid foundation of principles. These principles put sustainability and ethics as the main drivers. This is in contrast with pre-Industry 4.0 ‘old drivers’ – that of shareholder profit and optimisation alone. According to Dethridge, these old drivers need reassessment and reorganisation within the new framework.
The rise of AI and advanced autonomous systems to enhance productivity and outputs across all industries has been identified by CSIRO in 2022 as one of the key seven megatrends that will impact our lives over the coming decades. Fortunately, the digital technology sector in Australia is investing heavily in research and development (R&D) and our competitiveness is dependent on maintaining AI-related R&D expenditure equivalent to global trends.
But success is also tied to the trust that individuals and corporations will place in AI and autonomous systems, requiring commitment by developers to the principles underpinning Australia’s AI Ethics Framework as a minimum, and a regulatory and policy environment that assures a safe, reliable and ethical implementation of AI technology.
Research partnerships that focus on responsible and ethical innovation, like the one described here, will be vital in ensuring that the scientists and engineers of tomorrow are equipped with the critical thinking required to shape our technological future.