In general, I’m bullish on technology and consider myself a techno-optimist. So, broadly speaking, I believe that the overall effect technology has on all lives in the world is positive.
When Amazon first introduced their concept of a completely cashier-less store, fueled by software running complex image recognition software to detect who is putting what into their basket and then charging it on their Amazon accounts on exiting the store, I was very excited.
In the past months the project now truly came to life with Amazon opening this store of the future to the broader public. And I started to get second thoughts.
Cash registers without human cashiers are of course nothing new. In the US and Asian countries they’ve been around for a couple of years already and in Germany, where I’m based, they’re also starting to become more common — from IKEA to supermarkets.
I’ve used them for most of my recent purchases and so far, I don’t think they saved me much time. Between the times the program got stuck in an endless loop to the times I spent flipping through menus trying to find the exact type of vegetable I was buying, it probably would have been just as fast or faster to check out with a human.
As time progresses, concepts like the one Amazon has launched and the overall improvement of the existing machines will probably have an edge. But: it will mean that we’re getting rid of millions of jobs that are paying people so they can afford to be part of our society.
Now, I don’t want to sound like a luddite here. New technology has always replaced jobs and created new ones somewhere else. And I’m totally for that if it means we’re moving along and making things more efficient in a meaningful way.
But to save a few minutes (or seconds) when checking out to me is such an incremental and non-meaningful improvement, I’m not sure we’re arriving at a net-positive situation for our overall society and economy here.
Of course we can make everything faster and seemingly more efficient with technology. But as we are arriving at a point where we can replace not just manual labor but more and more also white collar jobs through the application of technologies in the spectrum of artificial intelligence and decentralized computing, I believe we as a society have to make conscious choices. Choices for or against a society where we might not always be able to do everything as efficiently and tech-optimized as we could be doing, but on the upside also provide jobs for low-skilled workers so that a greater part of society can own a living through their own work.
Not just for the sake of keeping those jobs, but because I believe having jobs across a wide spectrum of skill levels is what ultimately keeps our economy healthy.
While the economic mechanisms surrounding this topic are of course complex, at the very heart of it, it can be broken down to the general phenomenon that less people with jobs have less money to spend resulting in less demand of goods and more people in poverty who might need support from welfare programs. This could turn into a dangerous downward spiral with nobody coming out on top.
On a more positive note- I believe the answer to solving these problems ultimately doesn’t lie in restricting certain technologies but more within changing the system in which they are used. There are many bright thinkers who are currently discussing how to deal with trends like these — ideas ranging from a universal basic income to a better system for the taxation of machines and algorithms.
Personally, I don’t have an answer to what I believe is the best solution going forward, yet. While I am excited about the underlying concepts of basic income, I do also see many hurdles it will need to take before it can come into fruition.
For now there’s little public outrage about the replacement of human cashiers. It’ll be interesting to see if and how that changes once more complex jobs will be affected in greater numbers.
Going forward I want to further explore this topic, I’d be happy to hear what you think and learn about other concepts and ideas that are trying to mitigate the risks of tech driving people out of their jobs on a massive scale.
Feel free to comment or message me on Twitter: RBouschery