To those familiar with Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there is a particularly upsetting moment when Charlie’s father, who screws the lids onto toothpaste, is displaced by a robot at the factory.
“The upswing in candy sales had led to a rise in cavities, which led to a rise in toothpaste sales…The factory has decided to modernise, eliminating Mr. Bucket’s job.”
This notion of ‘displacement’ is, simply put, the automation of tasks through more efficient means, which first begins with innovation.
An innovative scheme recently gathering a lot of attention is Amazon’s plan to release more cashier-less stores in areas targeting affluent millennials with high speed lives.
The concept of cashier-less checkouts should not come as a total shock to anyone. Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last 5 years then you have at one time or another been informed that there’s an unexpected item in the bagging area. Yes, there are still people who opt in to wait in line for an employee to scan each item. Laziness? Tradition? Or a reluctance to accept the direction supermarkets will most likely be taking?
This trajectory does entail the redundancy of employees at cashiers, with some sources quoting 3.5 million jobs in the U.S. will be at stake. That’s a lot of Mr. Buckets. Our first problem is identified as a trade-off between humanity (our duty to look after one another) and efficiency (the steroid of profit margins).
Obviously, in the short run this will be detrimental to employment within the grocery industry. People will revolt against this automation and we might even see Amazon stores burned to the ground by arsonists/begrudged past employees. How could I be so heartless and not see the humanitarian perspective on such matters? Because rule number two in history is that progress is inevitable. Rule number one is that history is written by the victors, who in most cases are the personification of advancement.
No matter how large a dam of petitions, placards and unemployed parents we create, the momentum of progress will always break through.
But I have faith that the 3.5 million at risk of unemployment will find stability in the long run. We are adaptable creatures after all, and per Darwin’s capitalistic theory, only those most adaptable to change survive.
Yet job security isn’t at the heart of the matter. What’s more at risk is a problem closely related to what philosophy describes as 'determinism'. In a sentence, determinism suggests that all future events are caused by events in the past. Historically, the idea that robots could calculate our seemingly subjective decisions is a threat to our own freedom.
Now the deterministic element comes to play when we finally decide to regularly shop with the ease of not waiting in-line. Milk on Monday morning, a meal-deal on Wednesday afternoon and a bottle of red on Saturday evening. These consumer choices are data for companies such as Amazon to access, analyse and process into highly complex algorithms. After the recent enforcement of GDPR, it’s more than justified to read such a sentence and go into all states of panic.
Shopping in an environment where every consumable is traced can create paranoia, and essentially makes the customer walking out of the store a product themselves; having provided the gold-dust that is data to the retailer. Purchase suggestions evolve to become imposed and the whole notion of free choice is thrown out the window, if we succumb to ‘convenience’.
What will be interesting is how governing bodies will react to this situation. Clearly Amazon will be profiting most from this abundance of information. However, it has a Sicilian defense that could be their lifeline.
Take this scenario:
After months of shopping at Amazon’s self-store, your tastes become documented, your recommendations are highly tailored, and Amazon has discovered how to forecast your shopping tendencies to a tee. You notice that your fridge smells less like month old camembert and has some degree of organisation. Amazon also notes that it is effectively maintaining stock with extremely little going to waste.
You’re happy, Amazon’s happy, and all the those rooting for environmental sustainability should be happy, they just don’t know it yet. The dampening of randomness and increase of predictability could be one of the long-term solutions that significantly improves our resource scarcity conundrum. And so, the bigger issue becomes how much freedom we give up to sustain a world where scarcity is no longer a red alert issue. Maybe robots will be our historical victors, maybe they’re the, for want of a better word, personification of progress.
I’ll say it now, Amazon Fridges will be a thing of the future; ordering your provisions before you knew you required them, like the e-mother we didn’t know we needed.
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