The other day, Dan sent me a story about people who are boycotting self-checkout registers at their local retail and grocery stores because they think the registers are stealing actual humans’ jobs.
“They’re trying to basically herd everyone in, get everyone used to the self-checkouts to continuously cut down on staff,” said Dan Morris, one of the people the public broadcaster interviewed. “Machines don’t pay taxes, they don’t pay into the pension plan.”
Undoubtedly, there is some truth to what Mr. Morris said about business owners wanting to cut staff size. Overhead is undeniably a huge part of any business’s impediments to profitability. But the idea of a completely automated, human-free shopping experience — when you leave your house anyway — doesn’t really fit with the nature of how tech works anyway. But that’s not any different now than it was before self-checkout started becoming a thing.
Even if you replace every single clerk and their register with an automated one, machines break down. They lock up. They need to be interacted with on a personal level. You can’t even fully outsource the support of the machines, because what if someone needs to physically reboot the register, or re-seat a network cable or component? Technology is created by humans in service of humans; the idea of it becoming sentient and eliminating us all is cute science fiction, and certainly possible if artificial intelligence is created without a fail safe procedure for disabling it, but we’re not talking about Skynet here; we’re talking about allowing people who want to checkout from the store themselves to do so, without wringing our hands about what it means for our fellow humans’ ability to make just over minimum wage.
Neither the left nor the right of the political spectrum are honest with their bases, and that’s why there’s so much unnecessary mistrust, cynicism, and paranoia about automation. It is, simply put, unavoidable, because humans are hardwired to seek out, develop, and perfect technology that improves their lives. The wheel, the cotton gin, and the Internet are all related in one key way — they were all invented for the purpose of making human life easier. Politicians on both sides should be telling scared laborers and consumers that automation is a good thing, because it can free up human resources to do things perhaps more important than pressing a button to give you an extra large fries with your burger.
The real point, I think, is this little morsel from the same Futurism piece.
Online sellers like Amazon have come to dominate consumer commerce over the past two decades, and some companies that have attained mastery in that space — including Amazon and Walmart — are now turning their attention back to the real world, where they’re working to use sensors and artificial intelligence to open stores that have no cashiers at all.
Even if automation weren’t the inevitable end game of all technology, the simple fact is that our lifestyles are already drastically changing, because Amazon and others have completely changed how often we feel the need to even visit a traditional brick and mortar location. This isn’t to say we can’t, as a species, debate and decide just how much we want to protect human labor market participation rates, but in the final analysis, it seems like a lot of people are trying to get the horses back in the barn after they’ve not only run away, but the barn’s started to burn.
Of course, to a guy with my kinds of perspectives on things, I don’t necessarily see shifting how we view the whole concept of “work” and “labor” as a bad thing. The truth, it seems, is that human nature is to develop tech that helps make our lives easier, which in turn means automation, which could mean — God forbid — that lower skill jobs shift from humans to machines. To me, that sounds like the way it should be, but I’m open to discussion.
In the end, it seems like a smarter use of our time and resources would be to stop fighting automation and to instead start adapting to it, and what it means for our society.