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Aerospace & Defense

Boeing and Thales race to adopt AI, but say it won't kill jobs

Aerospace players doubt emerging tech's potential to fully replace people

Artificial Intelligence will mainly be used to improve productivity in the aviation industry, rather than replace workers, says U.S. aerospace giant Boeing.   © AP

SINGAPORE -- Artificial intelligence can increasingly be used to support human tasks but will not replace people completely, aerospace giants Boeing and Thales said Monday on the sidelines of the Singapore Airshow.

Both companies, which are among a growing number of aerospace manufacturers integrating AI into operations, emphasized that the emerging technology was not about take away jobs from people in their industry for the forseeable future.

"This technology is going to be primarily about improving productivity of the workforce in aviation or any industry, rather than replace or displace," said Naveen Hussain, general manager of research and technology at Boeing, who was on the panel.

The U.S. plane maker is rolling out AI to automate processes on the factory floor, Hussain said. According to Boeing's website, its technologists are applying AI to machines used in the assembly process for fuselage sections of its 787 aircraft, which has helped speed up the manufacturing line.

"We are sort of at the dawn of a new age of aerospace where the convergence of many different technologies from autonomy to digitalization is really opening up a whole new segment of markets," Hussain said.

Besides Boeing, French aerospace player Thales has also bet on the emerging technology. It acquired Ohio-based Psibernetix last year to drive adoption of AI uses across its markets. Psibernetix is known for developing an aerial combat application used to square off against pilots in simulated air battles.

China's People's Liberation Army Air Force Ba Yi aerobatics team perform an aerial display at a media preview of this week's Singapore Airshow on Feb. 9.   © Reuters

Herve Jarry, Chief Technology Officer at Thales Singapore said his company is applying AI to flight management systems as well.

"Using AI, we will be able to perform a lot of tests -- massive testing, something like 2 billion tests, thanks to AI, representing an equivalent of 100 million flight hours," Jarry said.

The excitement over emerging technologies such as AI has been tempered by worries that industries will shed jobs as companies move to increasingly digitize their processes and employ robots instead of humans to get work done.

U.K.-based research company Oxford Economics said in a report in June last year that while machines can boost productivity and economic growth, business models in many sectors will be disrupted, with up to 20 million manufacturing jobs set to be lost to robots by 2030.

But Thales' Jarry argued that AI's role is to add value to the tasks already performed by people. "We can really accelerate the way we can bring some AI applications into the workforce," he said.

Other discussion panel members, including Singapore aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul companies SIA Engineering and ST Engineering agreed that AI could support existing jobs that workers in the field currently perform, rather than take them away.

"The reason we invest in technology is partially due to disruption that technology has brought to the industry, and also at the same time, we see technology being part of the solution to turn these disruptions into opportunities," SIA Engineering's Senior Vice President for Transformation and Innovation David So said.

Tedious tasks performed by workers could be taken away with the advent of AI and automation, noted Chief Technology Officer at ST Engineering Lim Tau Fuie. His company has used autonomous robots to handle certain tasks in aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul processes.

"Digitalization is the foundation of all improvement," Lim said. "It is never too late to start."

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