Giant on-line retail Amazon has just unveiled its ambitious Amazon Go store promising to rid us, busy urban consumers, of tills, checkout, long queues, and all these nonsensical time-consuming retail hurdles we allegedly face when shopping. It is powered by a state of art AI machine learning and computer vision recognition among other new technologies.
Promising to be the most advanced piece of technology in retail today, the new process being called “Just Walk Out Shopping” introduces us (consumers) to buzzwords such as computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning.
According to an article on Wired.com, “… it uses sensors throughout the store and artificial intelligence to tell which direction customers are looking, even in a crowd, and can identify partially blocked labels.”
This article has no intention of delving into this new retail technology but rather to reflect and initiate a conversation on its foreseen catastrophic consequences to our modern urban society and way of living. AI and deep learning advancements are also changing and reshaping many other fields and industries casting a dark shadow in the future of many professions and jobs.
We have been learning from different recent articles how technology is reshaping the workplace and the future of employment. I cannot help but wonder the ethics and full implications of some of these new automated computerized technologies. Shouldn’t our governments be introducing new policies, creating laws to protect employees from being replaced by machines and robots?
For example, what would be the impact for retail jobs if many other retail giants start adopting similar technologies? How many people will lose their jobs around the world as a result? Which sectors could absorb these hordes of workers if it becomes a reality? See below a recent graph from LinkedIn on employment growth and decline distributed across different sectors affected by new disruptive technologies.
By carefully looking the above graph one can observe that at the bottom in red, the hardest hit sectors are retail activities where most of our workforce is concentrated today. The large majority of people working in urban centres are directly or indirectly involved in retailing.
Another ethical and moral aspect to consider is the social impact on millions of lives in urban centres who see their shopping time as a social activity. For some elder citizens, for example, chatting with another human at the till might be the only time in their lonely day they interact with another human being.
Should technology be ever allowed to trample and take priority over our humanity? Should governments take measures to protect our job market (and citizens) or just turn a blind eye allowing ‘free-market’ forces to take over and dominate? Where do we draw a line when it comes to disruptive technologies gradually replacing human labour? What are the ethics and morals of it?
In addition to the facts presented in this article, it’s also worth remembering Amazon’s own employee treatment records. The retail giant and its CEO Jeff Bezos have become targets from some human rights and activist groups for the way they treat their own employees. Some former employees have also voiced their disgruntled feelings with former employer to the media. Just last month a distressed Amazon employee has jumped off a building at the company’s HQ in Seattle (read full article). Amazon is not the only Global case, Apple, Nike and others have also been embroiled in similar cases.
Not surprisingly a company with such low track records in employee rights should not never be expected to be concerned about the ethics of employment. Global corporations are traditionally known for driving their decisions based on their shareholders best interests, market capitalization and financial outcomes. Forget about the triple-bottom line!
Apparently this is not only a blue collar problem. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, technology is bound to replace some top professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and accountants.
“The claim that the professions are immune to displacement by technology is usually based on two assumptions: that computers are incapable of exercising judgement or being creative or empathetic, and that these capabilities are indispensable in the delivery of professional service. The first problem with this position is empirical. As our research shows, when professional work is broken down into component parts, many of the tasks involved turn out to be routine and process-based. They do not in fact call for judgement, creativity, or empathy.”
CHREATE is a new initiative with the aim to debate and create conversation around this area, they are a unique consortium of leaders and human resource executives (the Global Consortium to Re-imagine HR, Employment Alternatives, Talent, and the Enterprise). One of their focus is to map changes in organisational environment in order to identify future challenges designing the actions needed to make the future a sustainable reality.
The reality is that as large corporations start investing heavily in automation, robotics and AI; process efficiency as well as training their key workforce to absorb these new skills necessary to perform complex tasks, hundreds or thousands of other will still be dismissed or outmoded. The ones who do not fit or adapt quickly to the new working environment will be left out of the job market. Ask yourself, what could be the consequences of a escalating uncontrolled levels of unemployment to our economy, local communities, security and order, etc?
Truth of the matter is that all these changes are not only forcing leaders, policy makers, researchers and academics, politicians, sociologists etc to reflect on the new nature of ‘work’ and what ‘job’ means nowadays but also opening the debate and the search for intelligent solutions addressing the ‘not-qualified’ or ‘outmoded’ mob. A critical questions is “how to equip current working force as well as train undergraduates and youngster to enter the workplace fast and efficiently?
Amazon’s automation plans threatening jobs are but the tip of the Iceberg. The retail industry is just one in many sectors undergoing substantial automation technological changes. The workplace currently is being disrupted by ‘Darwinian’ forces of cataclysmic proportions. The environment is changing faster than the ability people and the general population have to absorb new skills; universities, academies and schools have of reshaping teaching programmes or even, governments of creating new jobs.
“…rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States….Brynjolfsson and McAfee still believe that technology boosts productivity and makes societies wealthier, but they think that it can also have a dark side: technological progress is eliminating the need for many types of jobs and leaving the typical worker worse off than before.” – David Rotman
Right now you might be asking yourself “So, which jobs are most vulnerable?”. Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne’s 2013 report examined the probability of computer automation for 702 occupations. They found out that a staggering 47% of workers in the US alone had jobs at high risk of potential automation. Sectors such as transport and logistics (such as taxi and delivery drivers), office support (such as receptionists and security guards), workers in sales and services (such as cashiers, counter and rental clerks, telemarketers and accountants) are topping the list. Deep Learning technologies such as Amazon Go will be increasingly so placing at risk a substantial numbers of employees across a wide range of occupations. Some other studies from within the UK put the equivalent figure at 35% of the workforce for Britain (where more people work in creative fields less susceptible to automation) and 49% for Japan. (source: The Economist)
Amazon Go will open its new store to the general public in Seattle early in 2017. However, there are still socio-technological hurdles to overcome and no guarantees that the system will be bug and glitches free, or even, totally safe for shoppers even though they are beta testing with their employees at the moment. These hurdles will gradually be overcome and other retailers will soon follow suit. Undeniably there are benefits for some of us in the implementation of these new technologies but the permanent damages that they can cause to society far outweigh the benefits.
Furthermore, the loss of social capital is the one we might come to regret in a near future because in the end of the day we are all connected.
What are your thoughts???
What Amazon Go presentation video – click here