When we think of robots coming, too often we think of science-fiction. We imagine the futuristic FedEx robot walking down the street on two metal legs in Will Smith’s “I, Robot” movie. It looks like it is decades in the future, and maybe it is, so it’s nothing for us to think about, let alone worry about, is it?
But automation and technology have been with us for generations, and there are millions of jobs that have already been disrupted, reduced and eliminated by technology over the years. The change is not new, but the pace of it and the scale of it will be unprecedented.
Focussing on self-determining, two-legged robots is a distraction. What we need to be thinking of is much more straightforward and much more immediate.
This weekend, British retailer Marks & Spencer announced a six-store trial of a smartphone app that will allow customers to scan their products, pay and walk out without using a checkout at all. That’s not a robot is it? It’s just an innocent app for your iPhone.
It seems elimination, or reduction of the checkout operator is a task very much in the eyes of retail bosses. And with retail margins so low and profitability so elusive, who can blame them – they’re just trying to survive after all.
The pace of innovation in technology is getting faster on all fronts and that’s going to mean more jobs disrupted and eliminated than ever before. We do need to be talking more about this now, if for nothing else, to help our school and college leavers make the best choices.
Arms and legs are not needed.
The robots that are taking the first million jobs in our next industrial revolution don’t have arms and legs, they don’t need them. They don’t need to look like us, talk like us or walk like us. We may not even think of them as robots – they’re just technology or machines. But the effect is the same – people who were in work end up out of it.
I was in the Vueling Airlines hub at Madrid airport a few months ago, and the sight of their check-in desks startled me. For decades we’ve been used to rows of check-in desks with a few electronic check-in machines scattered around as a bonus (‘augmenting the human experience’ as the experts say). But Vueling had taken this up a notch.
There were over a hundred automated, self-check-in machines organised in a vast grid and not a single traditional, staffed check-in counter. The dozens and dozens of people required to run the regular check-in desks had replaced by a tiny handful of assistants wandering between the machines helping anyone who was stuck.
This was a whole tranche of jobs eliminated by robots.
Admittedly they were pretty limited robots that can’t move, talk or walk and can only process your passport. But who cares? When your job is lost to a machine, it’s no comfort to know that the machine is stupid.
It’s not just at airports. Across the United States, hard pushed casual dining restaurants have been ditching expensive and irritating waiters and waitresses who need to be paid by the hour, trained and given shifts and are replacing them with ordering terminals and iPads.
Ordering terminals need no training, never phone in sick, don’t get upset when a customer is rude and never forget an item. McDonald’s Europe alone has installed 7,000 of these touch-screen systems, each one reducing the headcount required to staff a McDonald’s branch. Burger King is right there with them too.
Of course, staff are still needed – the machines are assisting, they can’t physically make the burgers or pick them up yet, but be in no doubt, less staff are required to run a Burger King equipped with these machines than one without.
At risk from these changes? Well, 3.4 million Americans, that’s 2.6% of the workforce are employed as cashiers. It’s a similar number to all of the primary and secondary teachers in the country.
The driving force behind technology is profit, not a quest to better humanity.
Many of us live under the assumption that technology is here to make our lives better. Very often it does, at least for many or most of us.
But in a capitalist society, the driving force for the innovation in and adoption of technology is not the betterment of human lives – it is the increase of profits for the corporation.
And that happens by one of two levers being pulled – revenue going up or costs going down.
With human workers being the most significant cost for so many businesses, it’s inevitable that the driving force of innovation will bear down hardest on those workers. My worry is not that technology won’t bring wonderful benefits, because I believe it will. My concern is the increasing number of people it will leave behind.