Technology is often the engine which drives economic progress; however, that progress often generates anxiety in those impacted by the advancements. The most visible recent example is the rise in the use of self-checkout kiosks in supermarkets. As the use of these kiosks started to become more widespread I remember reading about supermarket workers lamenting about the potential impact to their employment.
The concern of those who advocate for laborers is that the technological progress we are witnessing will lead to widespread substitution of machines for labor. In turn, this progression (regression?) could lead to technological unemployment and further increases in income and wealth inequality.
Robots vs. Humans
While I had not given much thought in the recent past to self-checkout kiosks specifically – or the robots (technology) vs. humans concerns in general – I started to consider the issue more deeply during a recent trip to Australia.
I don’t normally eat at McDonald’s, however, there happened to be one located near my hotel and I popped in for a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich. There I had my first encounter with the self-serve kiosks, which allow you to scroll through the menu, make all of your meal choices, indicate dine-in or to go, and pay; and then pick up your order from the counter.
My surprise at encountering the self-serve kiosks was compounded by the fact that as I was sitting there waiting to pick up my order after placing it at the kiosk, the first news story I came across as I surfed the various sites I visit daily was about Amazon Go store.
The first store, which will open to the public early next year, is already open to Amazon employees near the company’s headquarters in Seattle. At the store, customers can pick up their groceries and just walk out. Sensors will track customers as they go about the store and record items they pick up. The purchases will be automatically billed to their Amazon Prime account.
As I considered the self-serve kiosk in front of me and the imminent arrival Amazon Go stores, it struck me that my experiences with the now ubiquitous self-serve kiosks at supermarkets suggest that it is likely that employers aren’t embracing technology and machines because they perform some tasks that much better than humans.
My guess is that in many cases the machines do a ‘good enough’ job while being cheaper, more predictable, and easier to control than human employees. As some advocates for laborers have suggested – and worried about – technology in the workplace may be as much about productivity and efficiency as it is about power and control.