Tuesday, May 10, 2016

More automation means more work

I was thinking a little about claims that artificial intelligence (AI) is taking over more and more decision making and that this time, technology really is going to permanently eliminate a significant percentage of jobs. I then thought a bit about how technology has changed the way we perform certain common tasks -- are AI and automation really taking over?

Let's look at retail sales. If you go back 200 odd years, retail stores looked quite different from today. Merchandise was often behind a counter and the clerk had to gather merchandise at the request of the customer. Of course, some of this was required since most products weren't packaged in nice boxes or bags which a customer could select from a shelf.

Then retailing changed. Instead of the clerk collecting items on request, the customer collected items off of shelves and took them to a counter to be listed and paid for. Note that on the one hand the customer has a bit more flexibility when shopping, but on the other hand the customer has now been made to do part of the work previously done by a clerk.

Similar changes continue to happen. Discount grocery stores experiment with customers bagging their own groceries. Most recently, self checkout lanes have become common. On the one hand, it reduces the number of people the store has to pay, but this is at the expense of the customer doing the work of checking out (and generally takes longer, self checkout scanners are slower because each item must be bagged before the next can be scanned).

Banks took the same route with ATM machines, reducing the number of tellers in banks but also speeding up customer transactions, I haven't stood in line for 10 minutes for an ATM, I routinely did in banks before ATMs. Yet the customer must also do more of the work involved in the transaction.

With the push for a $15.00 minimum wage there are reports that fast food restaurants are moving toward automated ordering stations. Of course, fast food restaurants have already made people pour their own drinks (which on the one hand saves labor, on the other hand customers seem to prefer getting their own drink). Again, automated ordering means that the restaurant can save money, but the customer has to do the work of ordering.

So on the one hand we see the advance of automation and a reduction in retail employment. This has resulted in lower prices as stores don't have to pay as many people, yet at the added cost that the customer must do part of the work previously done by employees of the store.

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