IMAGE: Max Pixel (CC0)
Amazon can say what it likes about people still being central to its logistics operations, but this Christmas the company will employ fewer casual workers in its warehouses than in previous years, instead assigning their tasks to robots, a strategy that has allowed it not only to increase productivity by building multi-story warehouses and using robots to retrieve inventory, but even to raise the minimum wage of its workers.
The skeptics can say what they like about automation, but you only have to watch balletic videos like this one from an Amazon warehouse or this from JD.com’s fully automated warehouse to see that automation is the future. That said, it may be ballet for a teacher of innovation like myself, but if you’re working in a warehouse, it’s another nail in the coffin. As time progresses, millions of people who are less productive than robots are losing their jobs; jobs that many would say are demeaning. We should no longer expect people to rush around warehouses, find the right package and carry them to a packing station. Soon, all companies that fail to automate their logistics will be met with demands for pay increases by their workforce, which they can either meet and see their costs mount, or not, and face strikes and go-slows. But the reality is that as China, the factory of the world, is leading automation by a long way, the robots will be taking over sooner than anybody thought.
Warehousing and logistics are a small part of what’s coming: Waymo already has permission for its autonomous vehicles to operate without a safety driver in California and the company is already carrying out market tests to decide the price for its services. The robotaxis are coming, meaning driving a vehicle is about to become a non-human activity putting millions of taxi, limo, delivery and truck drivers drivers out of work, despite the ostrich-like response of the skeptics. In 2012, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 31% of fatal road accidents in the country were caused by drunk driving, 30% excessive speed and 21% distractions, none of which apply to autonomous vehicles. Some accidents are inevitable, but replacing human drivers with computers will likely reduce road deaths and injuries by 90% in the United States: one million people a year. These are not opinions: they are figures. At the current level, the idea of blocking or delaying automation to safeguard some jobs is irresponsible: our duty is to protect people, not their jobs.
Amazon Go and its check-out-free stores are the future of retail, and again will make several million people in the United States redundant. Twenty expert lawyers were beaten by AI, which was faster and more accurate. Think of any industry and you will find initiatives to advance automation and make it more competitive.
The consequences of automation are inevitable and, besides, they will lower prices and give us more free time. At the same time, this means creating a new social model not based on working hours and, above all, preventing inequality, which has led to the downfall of so many civilizations, and is fast-becoming the biggest issue we face in the West. We have to forget the “humans vs robots” mentality and scenarios of the unemployed masses smashing the machines. As Gianpiero Petriglieri says in a fine article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Business does not need the Humanities — but humans do”, there is no “machine team”, and instead humans who have or do not have access to those machines. We cannot uninvent technology, turn our back on it or legislate against it. Using the excuse of preserving jobs is a losing game.
We have no choice but to address the challenge of how our societies are going to evolve, how we are going to reinvent ourselves when we free ourselves from so many boring or demeaning tasks and which models are appropriate for a society in which the eight-hour (or longer) working day is as outdated as the manual labor our forefathers endured. The dilemmas of automation require a new way of thinking: the technology exists, the question is whether we have the vision to adopt it. In short, the problem isn’t technology per se, it’s about adapting our society to make the best use of it. And I’m not sure we have the maturity yet to do so.