Boxes Without Humans: What Will Fill the Gap?

Amazon cat. Photo courtesy of Stephen Woods.

It’s been couple of days since the latest social disruption.  I wonder what’s going to be turned upside-down this week?  Flat on the heels of online shopping ravaging the conventional retail sector, warehouse and trucking jobs might be the next to go. holds contests every year entitled the Amazon Robotics Challenge, where academics and graduate students compete for prize money to help automate warehouse jobs with robots.  The technology gets a little more clever each year.  “They now use neural networks, a form of artificial intelligence that helps robots learn to recognize objects with less human programming.”  The good news is that there might be lots of work for technologists.

The bad news is that this could take a bite of decent-paying warehouse jobs.  In the US, there are about 950,000 warehouse and storage-industry jobs with an average wage of about $20 per hour.  Those jobs are threatened.

But a more pressing concern would be trucking.  Self-driving cars are already starting to make an appearance on the roads.  For trucking, the change will happen more quickly according to a Guardian article.  The decision to go driverless with trucking is a corporate decision, not a consumer decision like with driverless personal automobiles.  The financial motivation is extremely favorable to use self-driving trucks. “The potential saving to the freight transportation industry is estimated to be $168bn annually… [including savings from] labor ($70bn), fuel efficiency ($35bn), productivity ($27bn) and accidents ($36bn)…”  The trucker’s wage is similar to that of warehouse workers, but there are far more jobs at stake.  There are 3.5 million truckers in the United States, and the drivers themselves spend a lot of money at road stops, hotels, and diners.

Now, if you work in finance or information technology this might not concern you so much.  Technologies are created, investments made, money saved, and we’re better off on average.  But in human resources we know that the unemployed are our people.  We terminate them, we screen them when they apply for jobs, we help them with problems if we know them personally, and occasionally the we ourselves are the unemployed.  We think about them a lot.  We don’t always show it, but frankly we have to care or we die inside.

Thankfully, people have started to talk more openly about the broad-based social disruption that Artificial Intelligence may have.  In the Guardian article on trucking, there are calls for a Universal Basic Income, direct payments to everyone regardless of how well they have fared in a disrupted labour market.  There may be other policy concerns as well, such as improved access to training and education.  Of course, these are government-funded solutions which seem obvious to me.

There is still a persisting risk that the disruption will be misattributed to an outside factor.  If the technology-based job losses are blamed on immigrants, environmental regulations, or the abandonment of tradition, I can’t foresee broad democratic support for government solutions or the embracing of change.  And this spells trouble for the very business interests whose success relies on the rule of law, stable diplomacy, and a diverse workforce who are engaged to stay productive.

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