As retailers like Walmart, Target, Kroger and Giant Food Stores bring in robots to scan shelves and floors and to automate order fulfillment, there’s a popular refrain: “These robots won’t take jobs away from people but will rather free up our human employees to focus on enhancing the customer experience.”
Case in point: In an email, a rep for Giant said its six-foot roving gray tower of a robot, Marty, has googly eyes to humanize it. But Marty has no humanlike aspirations to ascend the corporate ladder.
“In fact, the Marty robots are designed to support associates and free up associates’ time to spend more time serving and interfacing with customers,” the rep said.
At this stage in their development, robots, which are still not capable of complex tasks, work best when assisting people. But once robots are capable of more complicated tasks, employers will be far more willing to promote them. And while robots and AI are improving rapidly, humans, on the other hand, are improving at a much slower pace.
“Marty probably doesn’t threaten many human jobs as he is not a very sophisticated robot,” said Ben Goertzel, CEO of SingularityNet, a marketplace for AI algorithms. “However, anyone who tells you that automation is not poised to eliminate vast masses of human jobs in the fairly near future is either lying or has their head deep in the sand.”
Take those assurances with a ’50-pound bag of salt’
That’s why the United Food and Commercial Workers union is concerned on behalf of the 1.3 million employees it represents.
“The aggressive expansion of automation in grocery and retail stores is a direct threat to the millions of American workers who power these industries and the customers they serve,” UFCW president Marc Perrone said in a statement. “When companies automate these jobs, they hurt workers who need these jobs to earn a living.”
Layne Harris, vice president and head of innovation at digital marketing agency 360i, pointed to efficiency gains in manufacturing via automation powered by intelligent software, which allows for the production of more products with fewer workers.
A recent report from the nonprofit public policy organization the Brookings Institution found the most vulnerable jobs are in office administration, production, transportation and food preparation. However, even so-called white-collar jobs aren’t immune. A deep learning algorithm developed at Stanford can simultaneously detect 14 diseases in chest X-rays, which is much faster—and accurate—than radiologists, for example. And Phil Simon, an information systems lecturer at Arizona State University, noted lawyer-bots can scan documents during the discovery process preceding a court case much faster than paralegals.
While Brookings found automation and AI will affect tasks in virtually all occupations with approximately 25 percent of all U.S. employees facing high exposure in coming decades, it expects American heartland states to be hit the hardest—along with men, young people and what it called “under-represented communities.”
What’s more, robots don’t show up late or hungover to work, and they don’t need health insurance or vacation time.
“I’d take what people are saying [about not replacing human employees] with a 50-pound bag of salt,” Simon said. “Anytime I hear anything about the auspices of customer experience, my BS detector goes up. It’s about saving money.”
Jeremy Hull, senior vice president of innovation at digital marketing agency iProspect, noted that the state of the economy will affect the speed of change.
“An economic downturn would incentivize businesses to identify rapid cost-cutting measures and this type of automation would become a major priority,” he said. “Beyond the economy, the modern era of perfect competition means that every retailer will be looking for ways to make their products and experiences more seamless and frictionless, which is another benefit of automation.”
And so there’s something of an existential crisis brewing among inherently flawed humans who are starting to realize they’re expendable. This was reflected in the spate of Super Bowl ads featuring robots this year. (Funny enough, many of the spots—including those from Amazon, Olay, Pringles, Michelob and Turbotax—focused on robot flaws, which will probably seem quaint in the not-so-distant future when their intelligence surpasses our own.)