Amazon Go: The End of Jobs?

by on March 3, 2017 · 0 comments

in Culture, Economy, History, Labor

By John Lawrence

AmazonAmazon Go is the latest job destroyer by virtue of the fact that it is a grocery store with no check-out lines.

High tech devices will monitor every item you put in your high tech grocery basket so you just load up and go. Your credit card will be charged the correct amount. It isn’t clear if a robot will bag your groceries or if you’ll do that yourself.

This feat of automation is only the harbinger of things to come. With artificial intelligence and robots, jobs will be automated out of existence except for a few software engineers who will design the various systems.

So far there is only one store open and that’s in Seattle, but soon … soon check-out cashiers can kiss their jobs good-bye. By the same token, truck drivers will be losing their jobs to self-driving trucks. This technology is well along (it’s in beta as they say in the tech world). Already self checkout is underway at Home Depot and many supermarkets. Amazon Go is just taking self-checkout to the next level. I suppose, if they’re out of an item, Amazon Prime will have it delivered to your house by drone within a few hours. Bank tellers have already been replaced by ATM machines although a few are still needed for those sticky situations that only a human can deal with.

I suppose the shopping experience will also include text messages or alerts which sense what you want to purchase and then try to upsell you. Why buy that hunk of cheese when for just a few dollars more you could get artisan cheese made locally at a vintage shop? And as for coupons, that will all be handled electronically. You would just scan them with your smartphone, and they would automatically be deducted from your bill. As you continue to shop, Amazon would be gathering valuable information about your purchases so it can suggest other items you might be interested in.

It’s not that retail tech companies haven’t already been hard at work tracking people as they explore physical stores and shops. A host of companies with names like RetailNext, Euclid, and Nomi, among others, are all part of this trend. It’s in a store’s interest to track people because they can target and upsell customers on more products and in-store promotions.

Just Tell Alexa What You Need

Amazon app

(Photo by Rick Turoczy, flickr)

Alexa already responds to voice commands in your home. It’s not a stretch that this technology might be incorporated in your smartphone so all you’d need to do is say “Hey, Alexa, where’s the craft beer, and also I need a bouquet of flowers.” Then Alexa might come back and say, “Why don’t you get that special someone a box of chocolates too?” Then you’d say, “That’s a great suggestion, Alexa, I’d like a dozen red roses, but I want to have them delivered to her home on Valentine’s day.” Alexa would come back, “No problem, Mr. Mertz.” You see Alexa already knows the address of that special someone.

Or why even go to the store? Just tell Alexa your shopping list and she’ll have it delivered within the next couple of hours. You’ll need a personal robot, however, to put all the stuff away. That’s maybe coming soon.

Amazon is capable of deploying an array of cameras and sensors to control this whole process, but all it really needs is a souped up RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification). So instead of running each product through a bar code scanner, each product would have a label containing a little chip that would transmit it’s ID to a receptor wherever that receptor is located. It could be in the shopping cart or at the door. There might be a number of them located throughout the store. It’s a bar code on steroids.

And for fast food – it will be automated too as advocated by Trump’s pick for Secretary of Labor (now defunct), the owner of Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s, Andrew Puzder. No need for minimum wage workers any more. Robots don’t require bathroom breaks or sick leave. Puzder can now get back to automating minimum wage workers out of his fast food chains.

Robot Baristas Will Make Your Coffee

It’s not only grocery stores and supermarkets that will be automated. Robotic baristas will churn out your coffee drinks without the need for the intervention of human hands. Cafe X has created an automated barista and a “coffee shop.” According to Forbes:

Cafe X is 100% automated from the ordering and payment system that can be from within the app or the order/payment screens on the front of the system to the preparation and delivery of the coffee. The system is by far faster than any current coffee shop experience. Once the amortization of the system has been met, the cost to operate this “coffee shop” is orders of magnitude lower than the 2.5 baristas a single system replaces.

According to the San Diego Union, February 22, 2017:

AmazonFranco’s barista was a robot. It’s part of an automated coffee shop called Cafe X — the latest example of the San Francisco’s dual infatuations: artisanal coffee and automated technology.

“It’s incredibly convenient,” said Franco, who has used Cafe X twice since it opened Jan. 30. “And the coffee is really good, too.”

Moments earlier, Franco had ordered her coffee using the Cafe X mobile app. Now a white robotic arm, the same kind used in car manufacturing facilities, was moving around a paper cup, pushing on syrup levers and brewing her a hot cup of coffee.

“I prefer this because you don’t have to wait,” said Franco, whose coffee was made in less than a minute. “It even accepts PayPal.” …

On the speed front, Cafe X can make a hot espresso beverage in less than a minute and is able to pump out 120 coffee drinks in an hour. A Cafe X kiosk can occupy as little as 50 square feet, although its footprint in San Francisco’s Metreon shopping mall is a little over 100 square feet and was most recently home to another automated tenant: a Bank of America ATM.

Encased in plexiglass, the kiosk contains two coffee machines equipped to brew Americanos, espressos, cappuccinos, lattes and flat whites. Customers can order their drink from the Cafe X mobile app or at one of two iPads mounted outside the kiosk. The entire transaction is cashless, and customers even get a notification on their phone when their coffee is ready.

“It’s similar to calling an Uber,” said Hu, who sees his kiosk as filling a void. “It’s for people who want a grab-and-go coffee, who want consistency.” …

Automation helps keep costs low for business owners, which in turn makes products and services more affordable for consumers, Ling said. That’s why automation — particularly in the food service and hospitality industries — seems inevitable. …

“This is just the leading edge,” said Martin Ford, author of “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.” “The really significant thing will be when the big chains — the McDonalds, the Burger Kings, the Starbucks — begin to adopt these technologies. Eventually it is going to create a big problem for us.”

As of May 2015, the largest overall occupations in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, were retail salespersons (4.6 million), cashiers (3.5 million), and food preparation and service workers (3.2 million).

Ford quotes the co-founder of a start-up dedicated to the automation of gourmet hamburger production: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

Basically every job that doesn’t have to do with the FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) sector or the military-industrial complex is in the process of being eliminated. However, janitorial jobs, child care and fruit and vegetable picking will probably always be with us. It might be hard to get anyone to fill those job positions as Trump plans to deport most of the people who have been doing them. Any job that could remotely be considered manufacturing will be gone. That’s why corporations are investing more in the US rather than abroad. However, their investments are not creating jobs; they’re eliminating them.

According to Our Automated Future by Elizabeth Kolbert:

During the recent Presidential campaign, much was said—most of it critical—about trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The argument, made by both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, was that these deals have shafted middle-class workers by encouraging companies to move jobs to countries like China and Mexico, where wages are lower. Trump has vowed to renegotiate NAFTA and to withdraw from the T.P.P., and has threatened to slap tariffs on goods manufactured by American companies overseas. “Under a Trump Presidency, the American worker will finally have a President who will protect them and fight for them,” he has declared.

[But], such talk misses the point: trying to save jobs by tearing up trade deals is like applying leeches to a head wound. Industries in China are being automated just as fast as, if not faster than, those in the U.S. Foxconn, the world’s largest contract-electronics company, which has become famous for its city-size factories and grim working conditions, plans to automate a third of its positions out of existence by 2020.The South China Morning Post recently reported that, thanks to a significant investment in robots, the company already has succeeded in reducing the workforce at its plant in Kunshan, near Shanghai, from a hundred and ten thousand people to fifty thousand. “More companies are likely to follow suit,” a Kunshan official told the newspaper.

Jobs in Oil Fields Decline Despite Trump

Amazon Automation

(Photo by Steve Jurvetson, flickr)

So-called President Trump promised to bring back all those good paying blue collar jobs by going full steam ahead with oil production. But guess what? The oil companies are going full steam ahead with automation, eliminating all those good paying jobs. Some of the workers losing their jobs in the oil patch are even migrating to the renewable energy industry! Did Trump get it wrong? In an article entitled Texas Oil Fields Rebound From Price Lull, But Jobs Are Left Behind, Clifford Krauss writes:

Oil and gas workers have traditionally had some of the highest-paying blue-collar jobs — just the type that President Trump has vowed to preserve and bring back. But the West Texas oil fields, where activity is gearing back up as prices rebound, illustrate how difficult it will be to meet that goal. As in other industries, automation is creating a new demand for high-tech workers — sometimes hundreds of miles away in a control center — but their numbers don’t offset the ranks of field hands no longer required to sling chains and lift iron. …

Indeed, computers now direct drill bits that were once directed manually. The wireless technology taking hold across the oil patch allows a handful of geoscientists and engineers to monitor the drilling and completion of multiple wells at a time — onshore or miles out to sea — and supervise immediate fixes when something goes wrong, all without leaving their desks. It is a world where rigs walk on their own legs and sensors on wells alert headquarters to a leak or loss of pressure, reducing the need for a technician to check.

The message is that blue collar jobs, jobs for those with only a high school education, are going bye-bye. There’s not much that Trump can do about it to assuage his Red State base, the “forgotten men.” So he will be left in the position of convincing them that those jobs have come back as an alternative fact of an alternative reality, something he and his cohorts are really good at.

Professional Jobs Will Be Taken Over By Robots Too

Machines are also getting smarter so that not only are they replacing manual laborers, but they are replacing people employed in white collar jobs as well. For instance, a highly skilled radiologist may soon be replaced by a machine whose powers of pattern recognition exceed those of humans. So while the doctor may find his job going by the wayside, his executive assistant’s job could be more secure. After all bringing him his coffee and delivering it with a smile is something far more difficult for a robot.

The belief that the digital revolution, automation and robotization will create more jobs than they destroy is wishful thinking according to Charles Hugh Smith.

Charles Hugh Smith writes in A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All: The Future Belongs to Work That Is Meaningful:

Issuing more STEM degrees doesn’t create jobs for the graduates.

This faith that technology will magically create more jobs than it destroys is wishful thinking. This theology arose as a result of the transition from low-skill agricultural labor to low-skill factory labor in the First Industrial Revolution (1750 – 1860, steam, railways, factories, etc.) and the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1930) (mass production, electric lights, autos, aircraft, radio, telephones, movies). Each transition offered millions of new low-skill jobs to those displaced by technology and created increasing numbers of higher-skill jobs in design, technology, marketing and management. But history is not repeating itself in the latest Industrial revolution….

Since automation/software is now eating higher-skill jobs, advancing the skills of workers does not automatically create jobs for them. Pushing the entire populace to get a college diploma does not automatically create jobs that require college diplomas.

The conventional narrative overlooks a key dynamic in the Third Industrial Revolution: the number of skilled workers needed to eliminate entire industries of highly skilled employees is much smaller than the work forces being eliminated.

Some are suggesting that everyone needs to have a universal basic income since their labor power will not be needed in the future. Robert Reich thinks that there has to be a way to recycle money from the owners of the robots to all the people those robots will displace so that money can continue to circulate and the American economy which depends 70% on consumption will continue to function. How else are consumers to consume unless they have the wherewithal to do so? Researchers estimate that half of all US jobs will be automated in the next two decades.

Smith disagrees with Reich because he doesn’t believe that taxing the Googles, Facebooks and Apples of the world will generate enough money to support the masses in a super welfare state. Besides that he doesn’t believe that just being a consumer can ever satisfy human needs for having productive and dignified work. A society of people who do nothing but consume will lead not to a utopia but to a dystopia because human beings have a need to be something more than just consumers.

But perhaps both Smith and Reich miss the point. There is no need to recycle money from the taxation system to provide a basic income for everyone. A Central Bank that was controlled by the people instead of by Wall Street, which is what we have now, could generate money the way Abraham Lincoln did. Lincoln endorsed the printing of $450 million in US Notes or “greenbacks” during the Civil War. The greenbacks not only helped the Union win the war but triggered a period of robust national growth and saved the taxpayers about $14 billion in interest payments. Instead of debt based money created by Wall Street through loans, the government could just print and distribute it directly to the people.

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