Sun, Feb 04, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Robots will take our jobs, so we had better plan now

The opening of the Amazon Go store in Seattle brings us one step closer to the end of work as we know it

By Larry Elliott  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Louise Ting

A new sort of convenience store opened in the basement of the headquarters of Amazon in Seattle last month. Customers walk in, scan their phones, pick what they want off the shelves and walk out again.

At Amazon Go, there are no checkouts and no cashiers. Instead, it is what the tech giant calls “just walk out” shopping, made possible by a new generation of machines that can sense which customer is which and what they are picking off the shelves. Within a minute or two of the shopper leaving the store, a receipt pops up on their phone for items they have bought.

This is the shape of things to come in food retailing. Technological change is happening fast and it has economic, social and ethical ramifications.

There is a downside to Amazon Go, even though consumers benefit from lower prices and do not waste time in lines. The store is only open to shoppers who can download an app on their smartphone, which rules out those who rely on welfare food stamps. Constant surveillance means there is no shoplifting, but it has a whiff of Big Brother about it.

Change is always disruptive, but the upheaval likely as a result of the next wave of automation is to be especially marked.

Driverless cars, for instance, are possible because intelligent machines can sense and have conversations with each other. They can do things — or will eventually be able to do things — that were once the exclusive preserve of humans.

That means higher growth, but also the risk that the owners of the machines get richer and richer while those displaced get angrier and angrier.

The experience of past industrial revolutions suggests that resisting technological change is futile. Nor, given that automation offers some tangible benefits — in mobility for elderly people and in healthcare, for instance — is it the cleverest of responses.

A robot tax — a levy that firms would pay if machines were taking the place of humans — would slow down the pace of automation by making the machines more expensive, but this too has costs, especially for a nation such as the UK, which has a problem with low investment, low productivity and a shrunken industrial base. It has 33 robot units per 10,000 workers, compared with 93 in the US and 213 in Japan, which suggests the need for more automation, not less.

On the plus side, the UK has more small and medium-sized companies in artificial intelligence than Germany or France. Penalizing these firms with a robot tax does not seem like a smart idea.

The big issue is not whether the robots are coming, because they are. It is not even whether they will boost growth, because they will. On some estimates, the UK economy could be 10 percent bigger by 2030 as the result of artificial intelligence alone.

The issue is not one of production, but of distribution, of whether there is a Scandinavian-style solution to the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution.

In some ways, the debate that was taking place between the tech industry, politicians and academics at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week was similar to that which surrounded globalization in the early 1990s.

Back then, it was accepted that free movement of goods, people and money around the world would create losers as well as winners, but provided the losers were adequately compensated — either through retraining, better education or a stronger social safety net — all would be well.

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