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Editorials

The story of Ice: How automation is going to change everything

by Dan Patt, CEO Vecna Robotics
Vecna Robotics

I grew up in Michigan. One of the most striking vistas in Michigan is the coastline of the Great Lakes in arch winter. From the shore, the Great Lakes look like an ocean — they stretch on beyond the horizon and wind drives mighty waves crashing onto rock or sand. When winter rolls around, the waves freeze. The resultant coast looks unearthly: giant frozen waves stand as tall as I do, and a frothy mixture of sand and frozen wave blocks my ankle. It is a stark and beautiful landscape.

It turns out that a long-forgotten industry was built on the frozen lakes of the North. In the days before electricity, we still had cold storage to aid in food preservation. To power this, an extensive ice trade existed — men would cut the surface of northern lakes into blocks — and ship them by horse or train south into the cities. Merchants would pay top dollar for blocks of ice in summer, which could extend the life of fresh meats by weeks.

Cutting blocks of ice off a frozen lake

Like any industry, though, there are opportunities for suppliers and merchants to gain a competitive advantage. At first, this showed up by automating the painful human labor involved. Gasoline engines from cars or tractors were jury-rigged onto sled frames to make power saws for ice. An entrepreneurial ice farmer could increase their throughput by a factor of 10 or more with a good ice saw. This is the logical and first path for automation: more efficient tools for humans in their jobs as we know them.

Automating ice block cutting

But then, automation began to creep into more aspects of this industry: trucks began to replace horse-drawn carriages for urban distribution of ice, increasing the number of customers that a supplier could service in day. This made ice boxes accessible to more people and businesses, and soon home cold storage was within reach for the upper middle class.

Ultimately, though, the story of automation and ice isn’t so linear. A sequence of clever scientists and engineers managed to totally transform the industry with the invention of the refrigeration cycle and subsequent reduction to practice. The idea of having ice shipped from Canada now seems preposterous. In a modern building, we are rarely more than a few minutes away from a source of lake-fresh, just-frozen ice-on-demand.

Even the most forward-leaning ice farmer would have never dreamed of this reality, because ultimately automation didn’t just make ice farming more efficient, it reinvented the entire concept of cold storage.

There is increasingly widespread recognition that automation will transform the economy, whether as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, new human interfaces, or robotics. The AI Index includes several measures of the start of this transformation, showing an explosion in AI-related startups, and growth in robot purchases (although note that the United States trails the world).

Startups Developing AI Systems and Growth of Robot Purchases graphs

What lessons are there for us in the story of the ice farmer?

First, we must recognize that automation is coming and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. There will be a decisive advantage to those businesses, industries, or Governments that embrace this change early.

Second, we need to have a broad perspective about how automation will come to bear. We tend to imagine automation coming in the form of improvements to tasks as we know them today: faster saws and quicker distribution. In the short term, this may well be the case. One report suggests that 23% of current U.S. work activities will be displaced by automation. In the long term though, automation will change the role of the human entirely. The concept of an ice farmer seems absurd. There are still humans involved – in designing and building ice machines and refrigeration units – but their roles are entirely different. You can’t measure the true impact of automation by simply looking for offsets in human labor and full-time equivalents (FTEs).

In the future that I desire, automation will elevate humanity. Automation will focus our attention and efforts on the things we find most rewarding and the areas we provide greatest impact.

What are you doing to prepare for this future? Or to drive it?

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