Amazon Go and yet another debate about the future of work

The beta launch of Amazon Go, a store in Seattle open for the time being only to company employees who are identified as they arrive by scanning a code generated by an app and who then choose what they want and leave without paying at a cash register, has once again raised the question about the future of work.

Amazon Go uses computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning, a combination of technologies that are growing exponentially as they are fed new information. Cameras throughout the store identify shoppers through facial recognition and then note their purchases, invoicing their Amazon accounts. This concept is, in fact, something that I have been talking about in my classes for more than a decade such as in Metro or IBM’s pilot projects, but which until now was merely conceptual.

While people are still needed to stock shelves and prepare some products at the Amazon Go store, the initiative completely eliminates the need for cashiers and checkout lines, a job that according to the latest available data, provided employment for about 3.5 million people in the United States, and that according to the latest data, most of whom earned around $19.310 a year ($9.28 an hour) a sector that saw an estimated 2% annual growth in employment generation, below the global average.

Amazon’s store once again highlights fears that technology is destroying jobs and our way of life. This is a debate for which few are prepared, because it undermines our long-standing beliefs that work defines us and is not just about earning a living… which is true for some people, but not for many others.

What does a supermarket cashier do? He or she carries out a completely mechanical and repetitive job. For the shopper, the check out is a barrier, slowing us down as our purchases are priced, one by one. The whole process is mechanical, repetitive, alienating and without any added value.

The only reason why these kinds of jobs have not disappeared already is that the technology was still not foolproof. It now pretty much is.

So let’s imagine the legions of supermarket check out assistants and store clerks joining the long line of drivers, miners, bank tellers, advertising planners, clerks, and many others. It’s an unsettling picture. It’s not easy to accept the idea of a future in which all work lacking added value will disappear.

In the past, it was the privileged in society who did not work. The nobility were fed by the work of others by virtue of a supposed divine right, privileges that marked who had to work, and who could simply collect taxes to live on the work of others. The situation was patently unjust, meaning that for most in society, having to work was a punishment … although not having work at all was even worse.

In many societies today, a growing number of people work in a way that would have been unthinkable even a few decades ago. People such as myself, who can get up in the morning and devote themselves to reading news, thinking and writing, and then standing up in front of a class of other people to try to get them to think, belong to a privileged who do not have to work with their hands or even break sweat to earn a living. The fact I need to run for 10 kilometers periodically to burn off calories and keep myself in shape should make us think about how our societies have changed.

What differentiates my work from others is, among other things, the difficulty of replacing it — for the moment — with a machine. As technology develops, that might change, and I might have to rethink what I do, or, possibly, not work at all, unless I want to. The transition from a society built on work to one in which work is a choice will not take place until we accept the premise of universal income to protect those whose work has been taken over by machines that do their jobs better than they ever could. Once developed, technology becomes mandatory for anyone who wants to offer a product or service under market conditions. It is not cruel, it is not soulless, it is not unfair: it is simply logical.

The replacement of the three Ds; dull, dirty and dangerous jobs by machines may seem a curse to some, but it is not: these are simply jobs that people should not be doing, which are an offense to human nature. The mechanization and automatization of other areas of work is worrying to many people only because very few of us really understand the need for universal basic income. But as understanding spreads, we will find ourselves not only relieved that our jobs can be carried out by machines and we will stop seeing this revolution as a threat and will instead join it, contributing our experience to the winning side of disruption. Obviously, without income, this is a terrifying scenario and one that the vast majority of today’s politicians are either fearful of invoking or unable to do so except from an ideological perspective.

Amazon Go provides a glimpse of a future in which humankind and technology co-evolve. There is nothing frightening, dehumanized, negative or excluding about this, unless we wish to see it as such. The first step toward the change our societies need is to accept it. This means understanding that this change will make our lives better, provided that as a society we are able to provide the appropriate guarantees for all those involved. And like all big changes, it’s not going to be easy, but it is inevitable.

(En español, aquí)