ALCHIMIA Project’s empirical investigation of Industry 5.0 (I5.0)

By Rachel Hale, Dean Stroud, Martin Weinel and Vinicio Di Iorio  

The ALCHIMIA Project is considering of the social and human aspects of inserting new digital technologies in the workplace using a mixed methods approach to provide a ‘human factor’ analysis of the novel digital technology insertion, as a real-world industrial scenario for the green deal. Through the human-centred design (HCD) approach of the ALCHIMIA Project, which includes ex-ante social science research, workers expectations and imaginaries are being taken into account in the design of ALCHIMIA, and in the development of a skills and training package.  

The ALCHIMIA Project social science team have been accepted to present their ex-ante empirical research findings at the International Labour Process Conference in Gӧttingen (Germany) in April.  Their presentation is titled ‘Artificial Intelligence for Steelmaking: optimising processes, augmenting workers, blurring accountability’.  The presentation will be followed by a journal article that the team are also working on, to be submitted for publication shortly after the conference.  The conference paper and journal article will provide: 

  • An empirical investigation of human-centred design (HCD) and Industry 5.0 (I5.0).   
  • An analysis of four case studies of management and (intermediate to high skilled) worker perspectives on emerging digital technologies and their use in the advanced manufacturing workplace 
  • Novel contribution to the area of digital technologies in advanced manufacturing 

Drawing on interview and survey data from the three EAF steel plants and the foundry taking part in the ALCHIMIA Project, in the conference presentation and journal article we will discuss management and worker perspectives on the insertion of AI technology in the workplace. This account, from the ex-ante phase (prior to the design and insertion of the AI), focuses on potential disruptions and discontinuities to work and employment, including changes to work processes, competences and skills needs.  We will consider how the AI platform could augment steelworkers’ cognitive capacities and blur accountability for decision-making through partial automation. 

Even though the optimisation of production processes approach of the ALCHIMIA Project seems to imply minimal impact on workers (processes, skills, decision-making etc), our ex-ante data suggests that some interview participants are imagining a future with ALCHIMIA which could include negative impacts to workers such as de-skilling, blurring accountability for decision-making. However, some positive impacts are also imagined, such as upskilling, augmenting workers capacities, as well as helping with tasks and decision-making.  Some interview participants proposed diverse (positive and negative) expectations/imaginaries of ALCHIMIA, despite overwhelming positivity towards it in the surveys.  

Overall, ALCHIMIA aims to adopt the principles of ALTAI for ethical AI, as well as Human Centred Design, and aspires to the goal of I5.0. But, with some interview participants expressing ambivalence about the role of the AI in decision-making, including the potential to de-skill workers and risk to worker autonomy and accountability in decision-making, there is more to do to meet the guiding principles of the project.