Amazon Go and the unstoppable automation train

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My mother likes to tell me a story about how when she finished school, the sum total of her mother’s aspirations was for my mother to get a job in the local can factory.

As a post WWII baby, a woman, and one of nine children from a working class Catholic family, a respectable and dependable job in a can factory was solidly within the boundaries of her mother’s expectations.

Sadly for my grandmother, her aspirations were never fulfilled. Instead my mother took herself off to university, gained a science degree and then completed teachers college. She was the first in her family to gain a degree, benefitting from a period of New Zealand history during which the government subsidized tertiary education for those who gained university entrance.

Of course life could have been considerably different for my mother (and her subsequent three offspring) had she not had the gumption to attend university. Had she taken that can factory job then right she would no doubt be suffering from severe automation anxiety, nervously waiting, like millions of manufacturing and unskilled workers, for the day her job became obsolete, to be replaced by a robot. That day, many would argue, has already arrived.

Robots aren’t the only actor in the automation story. Fintech advancements are also key. In early 2017 Amazon will publicly launch Amazon Go, a grocery store in Seattle that will showcase its pioneering Walk Out Technology. Shoppers will simply take items from the shelves and walk out of the store, their Amazon account pinged in the process. There is no questioning that this is the frictionless payment experience we have all been waiting for.

As is often the case with the Yin and Yang of technological advancement, consumers will win while blue-collar workers will lose. Should this sort of technology become widespread across the US retail landscape – which is highly probable – some 3.4 million cashiers stand to lose their jobs.

If being a cashier or a can factory worker is all you have ever known, then these sorts of developments must be pretty frightening. And society (as yet) doesn’t seem to have a reasonable countermeasure for these job losses other than the dubious idea of universal basic income.

While the unskilled workers of my mother’s generation may just be able to eke out their days on production lines, in bank teller jobs, or at supermarket check outs, their children and children’s children won’t.

The finance industry won’t be spared from automation either – the robots have been after brokers and financial analysts for some time now. Kensho is one of the poster children of the ‘dehumanization’ of Wall Street. Automation, as many have realised, is a problem no social class other than possibly the 1% are immune to.

There is no simple or elegant answer to the social problems facing the world as a result of mass unemployment. But I can’t help but wonder if we ought to press harder for the Amazons and Ubers of this world to explain how they will contribute to ameliorate the problems they are leaving in their profit-generating wake.

Fifty years ago it was unthinkable that mining companies in western nations like Australia would need to consider, and make financial provision for, the environmental damage caused by extraction.

While still not a perfect mechanism, these measures have gone someway to protecting our natural capital. More importantly, they have become the social norm. Externalising costs to the environment now come, for the most part, with a price tag.

Should we expect technology companies to make similar provisions for the impacts their innovations have on the labour force at large? Perhaps a tripartite solution involving government, educational bodies and the technology industry is the only way to solve this sort of messy, complex problem.

We are possibly witnessing the first time in history when the number of jobs we are destroying through innovation will not be replaced by new ones. While some of those jobs perhaps ought to be destroyed, we should try not to destroy the lives of the people that hold them in the process.

6 thoughts on “Amazon Go and the unstoppable automation train

  1. Agree that Ford is gloomy but the book seems to lead up to a plug for guaranteed incomes. Jessica, I’m not certain that one can cite Amazon and Uber as profit machines. Amazon may turn the odd profit but Uber currently appears to be a lossmaking machine. But I take your greater point; some of our colleagues have argued that banks for instance should report social metrics, ie the damage done by fraudulent or criminal banking, which seems highly unlikely. Do you think tech companies might adopt a different attitude?

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  2. Hi Jessica. I enjoy reading your articles. They show thought, insight and are well written and researched. Well done.

    My interest was piqued with your line about “dubious universal income” – I have only read a couple of articles on this, but from what I read it was of enormous benefit to both individuals and the community.

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  3. The article leaves the impression this is the first time automation and technology has “stolen” people’s job. One could argue this is nothing new: cotton gin, herbicides, shipping containers have all disrupted the labour market and made millions unemployed or with obsolete skills. Blaming technology companies for that is not solving anything.
    What needs to happen is a different type of education system and a different kind of safety net.
    The bottom line is the repetitive (including white collar) and low skilled jobs are going to be done by computers and robots. Unless we unplug everything, it is going to happen. People should try to fus on activities that computers and robots are bad at. For that you need imagination, science (STEM) and/or social skills. The rest will be done in software.

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  4. Telling the story via multiple generations really brings this home. It is hard to see where the jobs will come from. They did after agricultural automation, but this time…? I tend to be optimistic, because billions emerging into a global middle class does create huge new opportunities. But a generation maybe left behind due to failure of education. Interesting you highlight education in the case of NZ.

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