I don’t usually use the self-service checkout at the hardware or grocery stores and it’s not because I don’t know how. It’s because I want people to have jobs.
Today’s video from Amazon is a little frightening, suggesting that the inevitable march of technology isn’t going to stop because somebody wants checkout people to have jobs.
The Amazon Go store is being tested in Seattle. Walk in, take what you need, and pay automatically. Who needs humans?
No doubt there are plenty of reasons why this is a great idea. Perhaps the humans pulled off the checkout could do something else in the store. Pretty slick. And yet, the future is scary.
Many of the jobs that “left” the United States — and issue that propelled a new president into office — aren’t coming back because they don’t exist anymore. Anywhere. They’ve been replaced by automation.
“The human beings are really a positive part of the experience,” Roger McNamee, co-founder of technology investment firm Elevation Partners, told CNBC today. “I don’t expect this to take over the world. It just doesn’t seem like an earth-shattering thing.”
Quartz isn’t so sure.
There are roughly 3.4 million people employed as cashiers in the US, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There are a further 4.5 million employed as retail salespeople, and 2.4 million employed as laborers that restock and move cargo around. Amazon already uses robots in its warehouses to move cargo around and bring items to humans to prepare for shipping. It’s also working on creating robots that can scan shelves for items and prepare those goods for shipping themselves. Reverse that process and those same robots could theoretically be used to restock the shelves of an Amazon Go store. In the near future, a store like this could potentially be run almost entirely without humans, barring those employed to prepare the food—although even that could one day be automated.
Steve Cousins, a computer scientist, writes on Tech Crunch, however, that the fear, illustrated in a recent article that said 7 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will disappear via technology, ignores historical fact that technology that eliminates jobs also creates them.
A lot of data supports the fact that technological advances actually create jobs — eliminating dull and low-skill occupations, while simultaneously creating entirely new categories of work. A study of census data in England and Wales since 1871 found technology created far more jobs than it destroyed during that 140-year period. “Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labor than at any time in the last 150 years,” says the report, authored by Deloitte.
Another 2015 study from London’s Center for Economic Research shows the use of robots increases productivity and wages, while having no negative impact on overall employment. According to the study, the contribution of robots to the aggregate economy has, so far, been about the same as other important technologies in history, such as railroads and U.S. highways. In any case, robots normally don’t replace entire “jobs” but instead take over “tasks” — such as hauling goods, operating machines or providing information. When companies use robots to complete repetitive or dangerous tasks, it frees employees to do more interesting, valuable work.
“As robots take over mundane tasks, humans can rise into more fulfilling jobs as operators of these machines,” he insists.